A Healthy Camp Depends on You: Six Things Staff Can Do to Have a Healthy Summer

by Sandra (Sam) Thompson, C.P.R.P., and Barry Garst, Ph.D.

You've probably heard your camp director say, "Counselors are the backbone of any camp." Although somewhat cliché, camp directors see daily evidence of the truth of that phrase. Directors can develop all of the goals, policies, and procedures they want, but if counselors and frontline staff don't "buy-in" with their hearts (what they care about), their minds (what they think about), and their bodies (what they actually do), then the message goes nowhere.

A central theme that camp directors hope to teach you this summer is that a healthy and safe camp depends largely on you. It's a theme that parents hope you understand, too. Parents have high expectations of you. Every day a camper spends with you at camp is a day that parents ponder what their child is doing at camp. They wonder what you, as their child's counselor, are doing to keep them safe and ensure they are well. Because you are so important, here is your chance to make your camp a healthy, happy place to be!

Six Simple Steps!

The great thing about these six steps — based on a study of camper and staff injuries and il lnesses the American Camp Association (ACA) conducted from 2006–2010 (see sidebar) — is that they're designed not only to help campers have a safe summer, they'll also improve YOUR camp experience.

Step #1: Do it in your sleeve. Take any group of nine-year-old campers. Now think, "What do they know that I don't know?" You might be surprised to learn that they probably know how to control the spread of germs better than you. Many young children have learned that the best way to keep illness from spreading is to cough or sneeze into their arm or sleeve. Many adults, young and older, haven't quite mastered this new habit. Sneezing into a hand or even a handkerchief is a great way to transmit your germs to others. So . . . do it in your sleeve. Teach your campers to sneeze in their sleeve, too, and to wash their hands often at camp. You need to model this behavior. By the way, research shows that you're more likely to get sick at camp than injured. So, if you remember only one step — MAKE IT THIS ONE! It might keep you, and your campers, out of the camp health center this summer.

Step #2: Sleep! You're more likely to get sick or experience an injury when you're fatigued. Staying up late might be a part of your camp culture, or just something that counselors often do at your camp, but being sleep deprived is a good predictor of injury and illness. Fatigue slows your reaction time and makes you clumsy, grouchy, and less patient. This can be risky for both yourself and your campers, particularly the next day when you're leading campers through camp activities . . . many of which involve specialized equipment, water sports, and so on. Get enough rest at night to do your job effectively. You are responsible for your campers' well-being.

Step #3: Protect your feet. Chances are you're going to slip, trip, or fall this summer . . . the largest percentage of injuries in camps happen this way. Do you know the best thing you can do to keep yourself from getting hurt? Wear closedtoed shoes at all times. Period. And make your campers wear them, too. No one likes to spend time in the camp health center with a foot, ankle, or toe injury (the most common type of camper and staff injury) when they could be having fun!

Step #4: Get Well. Unfortunately, even if you follow steps one through three, there will be times when you will get sick or experience an injury. Although you might often feel invincible, coming to work when you are sick risks spreading illness to others, and working with an injury may aggravate your injury and increase the amount of time you'll need to heal properly. Do you ever serve food or work in the kitchen? You need to be extra conscientious if you handle food during camp . . . remember Step #1!

Step #5: Wear gear. In many instances of staff injury at camp, staff did it to themselves. Not intentionally, but because they weren't wearing proper protective equipment during camp activities, including gear like arm guards, personal floatation devices, and helmets. Or, they were using equipment that was too large or small for their body. So, when you get to camp and you're in charge of a camp program or activity, learn about the safety equipment designed for that activity and USE it. Require your campers to use it, too. No counselor wants to see campers get injured "on their watch." Make it cool at your camp to be the counselor with a perfect safety record in your camp program. No injuries. All summer. To anyone.

Step #6 : Be Camper- Focused. If one of your campers had a stomach ache, would you know it? If another camper had a high fever, do you think you would notice? All camps use health screening at the start of camp to substantially reduce the spread of illness in camps. In fact, your camp has the right (and the responsibility) to refuse ill campers. But as a counselor, you'll get to know your campers better than anyone else at camp. You'll learn to tell when something is amiss. If you believe that one of your campers isn't well, you should always investigate further within the scope of your responsibilities. Ask how they feel, escort them to the health center. You just might stop an outbreak or help one of your campers feel better sooner!

The best time to connect with your campers is during free/rest time. You might be surprised that many injuries occur — and many illnesses are reported during — free/rest time. If you want to focus on being a better counselor and watching after your campers carefully, free/rest time is a perfect place to start honing your supervision.

Now apply these tips and have a happy and healthy camp season!

Sandra (Sam) Thompson, C.P.R.P., is a recreation supervisor for the Crystal Lake Park District and a member of the Healthy Camp Study advisory board. She may be contacted at sthompson@crystallakeparks.org.

Barry A. Garst, Ph.D., is director of program development and research application for the American Camp Association and adjunct faculty at Virginia Tech. He can be contacted at bgarst@ACAcamps.org.

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