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It Takes a Community
Anyone who works in the camp industry knows that on any given day many acts of creativity, dedication, and commitment pass largely unnoticed by the outside world. Far from hearing our good works trumpeted from the mountain tops by a world more concerned, say, with TV reality shows, we camp professionals sometimes feel like so many "unseen hands," ones that seem to work in near anonymity as we carry out the important charge of "enriching lives through the camp experience."
Not that it matters: as camp professionals we've long ago learned the transforming power good camp-work exercises in children's lives. Whether the world at large acknowledges what we do or not is not the point. We do our work. And we move on, content with the good we know that work does.
As "invisible" as camp work may at times appear, however, something — a chance inquiry, say — sometimes will "open the door" to reveal new or unique innovative program strategies or exceptional examples of creativity or dedication at a camp.
This was the case when Connie Coutellier and her editorial researcher, contacted Joe Long, director of the 4-H Rural Life Center in Halifax, North Carolina, as part of development of a new book about day camp administration. The book, Day Camps From Day One: A Hands-on Guide for Day Camp Administration, is a comprehensive overview of all facets of starting and running a day camp.
"While we were doing research [for the book], we interviewed many camp professionals, all of whom were more than generous with sharing their insights and best practices," says Coutellier. "Everyone had great stories to tell and valuable information to share. But there was something about Long's story that stood out as a great example of how a creative and dedicated camp professional can get a lot accomplished at a day camp with limited means."
Coutellier says that it was the unique status of Long's camp as a "county-owned" camp — and the many related operational challenges — which made his story especially interesting.
Serving the Community, Owned by the Community
The 4-H Rural Life Center is owned by the community it serves — Halifax County, North Carolina. The camp brings its strong programs in arts and crafts, music, drama, and environmental studies to about 650 children every summer — about 80 to 100 campers each week.
While most of the camps the 4-H Rural Life Center has conducted over the years have been themed camps, the real cornerstone of the camp is what Long calls its "traditional 4-H camp." In this program, which runs for eight weeks, camp participants rotate through programs that focus on specific subject areas, for example, arts and crafts. The rest of the summer Long and his thirteen-member staff dedicate their energies to a series of theme camps that bring young people from the rural area into specific concentrations, including a range of sports and aquatics-related programs.
"As a kid, I went through a lot of camps myself," recalls Long. "My experience with camps was an important part of growing up for me. It also gave me a chance to learn firsthand from a kid's perspective what works and what doesn't. I saw a lot of things I liked and some things I didn't like as well, and I've tried to use my own experience in putting my programs together over the years."
Long, who has worked more than ten years in camping, says his camp mostly serves low-income children from the rural agricultural region. For this reason, he and his staff have had to learn how to accomplish its goals with very limited financial resources.
"Being owned by the County of Halifax, we're kind of unique," says Long. "There are not many counties across the country that actually own a camp. [Camp jurisdiction] actually falls under the Cooperative Extension Service, the agency that directs the camp, but the county owns us, and I am a county employee. It's a unique situation."
Like all camps working in the context of today's economic downturn, 4-H Rural Life has its challenges. Many of the biggest are funding related.
"As everyone knows, money is an issue for all camps right now," says Long. "Because of where we are, who we serve, and the fact we're owned by a rural county that has, frankly, limited means, finding funding has been an even bigger challenge than it usually is. But the good thing is these challenges keep us creative."
"Creative" is the watchword for Long and his staff. It has to be. Where money is scarce, creativity must step in to make up the difference. For this reason, taking a creative approach to camp administration is a "first principle" in Long's philosophy of running the camp.
This is especially evident in the efforts Long and his staff bring to the task of ensuring that the 4-H Rural Life program reflects the wants and needs of those it serves. A first step in this, says Long, is making sure the camp is thoroughly incorporated into the community. A second involves ensuring that the camp remains sufficiently business-viable to continue to bring its much-needed camp programs to the area's youth.
"For a camp like ours to be successful, we've learned a long time ago that it really does take a community," says Long. "For us this is especially true, since we are owned by the community: that is Halifax County."
Because of his camp's unique status as county-owned, Long places an emphasis on keeping closely networked with the local county government.
"Our county commissioners are a key audience for us," says Long. "Whenever we can, we have them come out [to the camp] so they can see for themselves how our line-item in their budget brings a direct benefit to the county's young people. Having them to lunch is a great way to help them see firsthand that the county's money is going where it is doing real good: good that they can see. And I think that being out at the camp is a good way for our commissioners to feel that, as our county representatives, they are giving something important back to the community."
"The County as a Whole that Supports Us . . . ."
Almost all of Long's annual operating budget comes directly from the county appropriations. The balance, says Long, comes from a range of fund-raising activities, most of which involve a wide cross section of county residents.
"Our fund raisers — and we do a lot of them — are the reason we can provide scholarships to kids who, without them, might not be able to enjoy the advantages of a camp experience," says Long. "Each year we do a golf tournament. And, of course, we go for available grants and actively solicit donations. Really, it's the county as a whole, including our county commissioners, that gives us the kind of support we need to provide good programs to as many kids as possible, without regard to whether they have available financial means."
One of Our Camp's Best Practices . . . .
"Lesson plans," he says. "For every single activity we do at camp, we have a written lesson plan. We go through every aspect of an activity. We document: Who's going to be teaching the activity? Where are they going to teach it? When is it going to be taught?"
The lesson plans also provide an outline of each activity — one that includes a summary of the activity's content and the materials and supplies camp staff and campers will need.
"We also try to include in the plan a reference as to where we found the curriculum, so if we need to brush up on the activity between the time we write the plan and present the activity, we can go back to the original source of the curriculum for a refresher.
"It doesn't matter if it's a craft, recreational game, or something else; we have a lesson plan for every single activity. It makes for a lot of work. Sometimes we have as many as 160 lesson plans prepared before the start of camp. But it makes life a whole lot easier once camp starts to have that kind of preparation. The planning has already been done. For our programs, the lesson planning is critical."
ACA Affiliation: Part of the Community
Long, who in addition to his camp work, volunteers as scoutmaster for Boy Scouts of America, says that his camp's American Camping Association (ACA) affiliation has played a central role in the success of 4-H Rural Life Center. ACA's support extends from simple moral support to helping the camp develop creative strategies for generating much-needed revenue. In many ways, ACA is as much a part of his camp's community as Halifax County, says Long.
"The ACA National Conference has been a great place for us to learn about grant opportunities," says Long. "The many e-mails you get as a member of ACA really help keep you up-to-date on what grant opportunities are out there and how to go about turning those opportunities into additional funding."
Long says that his camp almost certainly wouldn't exist at the same level of success or operational effectiveness were it not for the supportive community the camp's ACA affiliation brings. Especially valuable, says Long, is the information ACA makes available to its members. Information, he adds, is essential in helping camp professionals at all levels stay informed about the details of all aspects of camp administration. It also promotes expertise and best-practices sharing, which helps keep everyone traveling on the road to continuous improvement.
"Managing details is really one of the most important jobs a day camp director has," says Long. "Details are everything. In a camp like ours, you have to have a working understanding of the hundreds of things that go into running a successful camp. In addition to putting together your program, you have to know something about paperwork, general administration, legal issues, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and how to recruit and retain staff. The list goes on and on . . . .
"A lot of what we need to know as camp professionals, we learn as we go along," says Long. "But you learn it a lot faster, and more completely, through the information ACA puts out; for instance, through its camp directors institute or in books or publications. ACA is a great resource; there's just so much you can pull from."
As for Coutellier, she says she hopes her new book will be helpful for new and experienced camp professionals alike — professionals such as Long.
"Running a day camp, while certainly fulfilling, requires a working knowledge of many, many facets of day-to-day camp operations and a command of the countless details that must be managed each day," says Coutellier. "In this book, we've tried to pull together current best practices, proven camp management strategies and, just generally, 'what works' for a day camp in a single, clear, and easy-to-use resource.
"I hope the book helps those new to day camp administration — as well as those more experienced — to successfully navigate the many details and requirements of day camp administration."
Nick Crews is a writer and editor from Plainfield, Indiana. A lifelong camp enthusiast, Crews was the lead researcher on the book, Day Camps From Day One: a Hands-on Guide for Day Camp Administration, by Connie Coutellier.
Originally published in the 2004 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.