Each summer U.S. summer camps employ approximately 25,000 international counselors, nearly 20 percent of the total counselor population. When these counselors play an active role in the camp community and share their customs, language, music, and way of life, they give incredible gifts of knowledge to staff and campers alike. This is an incredible bonus for camps, one that can enhance the camp environment and even improve a camp’s marketability.
How can your camp achieve international harmony? The following guidelines will go a long way toward achieving a mutually beneficial international camp experience. Your efforts will improve your overall camp-international staff relations.
Checklist for a Great International Summer
Basic guidelines for every camp
- Think of yourself as an international counselor. The first thing you should do is place yourself in your international visitors’ shoes. If you were spending the summer at a camp in another country, what would you hope to gain from the experience?
- Hire staff from a variety of countries. The more countries represented at your camp, the more interesting your activities. This also decreases the chances of segregation (many people from one country tend to flock together). It’s also more fun for American and international staff to get to know peers from around the world.
- Establish a relationship before arrival. Making the staff member feel welcome before they even arrive in the United States helps set the tone for a great stay and improves the chances for ongoing communication. Easter Seals Camp Kysoc, in Carrollton, Kentucky, prepares Kentucky gift boxes and mails them to staff along with camp information. Many camps, including Camp Sonshine, in Silver Spring, Maryland, call potential staff members before hiring them to make sure they are a good fit. It’s also a good idea to maintain contact after your initial conversation and until the summer begins. In your welcome packet, encourage staff to bring items from their home country to share at camp.
Although these calls and letters may seem like too much extra work, the benefits are enormous. Carole Paterson of Frost Valley YMCA Camp, in Claryville, New York, sums up the rewards, “It is so important for camp directors to invest in international staff just as much as they are investing in American staff. Having internationals join a camp community requires commitment . . . What time I spend prior to camp talking with and writing to staff in other countries is returned tenfold the moment they arrive here beaming with excitement to be a part of a community as unique as summer camp.”
- Actively incorporate staff into your community. It is absolutely essential to treat international staff with the same respect as Americans. Heather Gordon of Gwynn Valley Camps, in Brevard, North Carolina, says, “We make a point of including all staff in camp. I know this sounds simplistic, but we operate as a community and in that respect there are no differences. . . .Inclusion is the cultural norm here.” Unfortunately, some camps do segregate international staff, which ultimately undermines the possibility for positive intercultural experiences.
There are many ways you can make international staff feel like a useful member of the camp community. Sarah Horner of Tom Sawyer Camp, in Altadena, California, says, “We introduce all of our international staff to our American staff at the start — and make a big deal about it. Our veteran staff are great at welcoming and cheering for them.” Camp Friendship, in Palmyra, Virginia, has an international morning or evening during staff training. The international staff create displays, cooking demonstrations, dances, songs, and games. “When American staff see the variety of talents available, programs for the campers develop,” says Linda Pullium, director emeritus of Camp Friendship. This professional interaction between staff fosters teamwork, communication, and better programs for campers.
- Incorporate international activities into the regular routine. International activities — led by your international counselors — can easily be woven into the camp schedule. Tom Sawyer Camp has their counselors sing native songs and teach some of their language, games, and traditions. Camp Friendship has a mini-university on Saturdays, when international staff are encouraged to teach languages or activities from their countries. They also have an international day each summer and have a flag for each staff and camper from other nations posted in the dining . Gwynn Valley Camp has a weekly international day, including songs, special foods, cabin skits, sports, games, and activities.
Carole Paterson says her own enthusiasm for the international element inspires everyone else’s interest. “I have found that the enthusiasm that I radiate is contagious, therefore making unit leaders and other staff excited about learning about other countries,” she says. This excitement in turn spawns creative ideas and activities, for example, all-camp Olympics with teams representing staff members’ native countries.
- Include support staff in all-camp and staff activities. Sometimes support staff — those who work in the office, kitchen, and maintenance, for example — are unwittingly ignored or forgotten. International support staff can easily become lonely and unhappy. You can ameliorate this problem by organizing all-staff nights out, providing an all-staff lounge, and making sure that support staff are included in the camp’s nightly activities.
- Help your staff get situated. New staff from abroad suffer from jet lag. They also have to adapt to a new culture and, in many cases, they eventually start missing home a bit. You can help by giving them some time to adjust and creating opportunities to discuss their needs, which may differ from American staff. Frost Valley YMCA Camp has international staff arrive a day earlier than other staff so they have a chance to settle in, rest, acclimate, and ask questions in a small-group situation. During their staff training period, Camp Friendship devotes at least three sessions just for international staff and dealing with their specific concerns, including post-camp travel plans. Tom Sawyer Camp takes international staff to Disneyland during training week — a sure-fire way to boost staff spirit.
- Provide adequate time off. It’s essential to provide enough time for hard-working staff to rest, relax, and explore the area outside camp. This means at least two nights and one full day off each week.
- Develop a buddy system between American and international staff. Many camps find that a buddy system not only develops friendships but allows international staff to practice English with native speakers.
Optional items for those camps who wish to go the extra mile
- Arrange day-off opportunities. If you were working in another country, wouldn’t you want to explore some of the sights? Since many camps are in rural and remote locations, it’s hard for international staff to get out of camp without access to a car. Camp Lee Mar, in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, provides a staff van and driver to take staff to town on days off. Camp Friendship organizes trips to various destinations, including Washington, D.C., Williamsburg, and Virginia Beach. The camp provides the van, driver, and gas, and the staff pay for food, motel rooms, or camping.
- Provide nutritious food. Do you have salad bars and low-fat meal options? Many international counselors are accustomed to the fresh, unprocessed foods that are the norm in many countries. They often have a hard time adjusting to fried, fat-laden, processed meals and suffer from weight gain, indigestion, and more. Providing healthy fare would be better for your campers, too, not just international staff.
- Provide free laundry facilities. International staff usually don’t have much extra cash to spare. It’s great when a camp can provide free laundry facilities. The staff can then save those quarters for their post-camp travels or postcards.
- Provide e-mail and Internet access. It’s great if you can provide e-mail or Internet access using designated computers. This enables staff to communicate with friends and family (which reduces homesickness) and research sites related to future travels.
When international staff are fully incorporated into camp life, the end result is a fantastic “international” summer for everyone, especially the campers. The right mining tools are all you need, and you can access the valuable treasure just waiting to add value to campers’ and counselors’ camp experiences.
Bill Harwood is founder and president of Camp Counselors USA.
Originally published in the 2001 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.