20/20 Toolbox: Ready! Set! Go!

by Diane Tyrrell, C.C.D., M.A.Ed.

Integrating Success: Creating Your Camp's Readiness Program

Camper readiness is a concept applicable to any individual who has not specifically been a participant in your camp program. Intended to create an environment that supports participant success, a quality camper readiness program helps make entering your camp as comfortable, welcoming, and inclusive for the new camper as possible.

As camps will always have new participants entering at some level, any camp can benefit from developing a readiness program. Odds are, your camp already engages in some very basic readiness by providing written information for parents such as what-to-pack lists, policies handbooks, or information on how to cope with the emotions of a child's departure to overnight camp. Some camps also offer open houses or opportunities to meet the camp administrators and ask them questions. However, this is where many camps stop in terms of preparing campers to attend, or many of their efforts are targeted for the parents of campers and not the campers themselves. As this appears to work for the current clientele, many administrators don't see the need to do any more than this basic type of camper preparation — or they simply may not have given thought to the development of a more comprehensive readiness plan.

However, for those camps seeking to reach out to a new demographic — and do it in a way that is supportive of diversity — directors must be willing to go beyond the strategies that have been successful with their traditional clientele. To be successful in providing a positive camp experience for diverse participants new to the camp, administrators cannot simply expect them to assimilate to a one-size-fits-all approach. The information and/or preparation which the new clientele need may be very different from what you have typically provided. The creation of a formal, intentional camper readiness program can be a critical step in providing a "level playing field" so that the new, diverse clientele find the same level of success as your longstanding participants have.

Step 1: Getting to Know Your Camp

Before successfully integrating new participants in your camp, you need to understand who you are. Imagine filming the total life-at-camp experiences of the "typical" campers in your program for their entire stay, from arrival to departure; it would be very much like a reality TV show. Now, analyze that footage frame by frame. What would you see? Can you identify what makes your camp your camp? What is the culture? What are the norms? Who are the current participants?

During this self-discovery process, it is critical to consider every aspect of your program and current participants, looking at everything that occurs in a typical day, typical session, as well as "typical norms" of your current "regular" participants. When looking at your current participants, be sure to consider their norms both in camp, as well as the types of skills, abilities, resources, and experiences they bring from home to camp. For example, the current camper population may arrive at camp already knowing how to swim, or have had prior experiences in the types of activities conducted at camp before arrival. It is also important to include an examination of your camp's traditions as part of this process, as they may be exclusive in some manner or otherwise be a deterrent to participation by the new group.

Examples (and these are just a start) of aspects of your camp's program to consider and understand:

  • Transportation: How do campers get to camp? Do parents typically drive their children to camp and assist with checking them in?
  • Language(s) Spoken in Camp: Also, what type of slang is used? Is swearing permitted?
  • Typical Participant Behavior: How do campers typically resolve conflict? Do they tend to respect adults? Do they follow rules? How do they act with each other?
  • Social Skills: What is the social competence level of the "typical" camper upon arrival? What are the typical social influences?
  • Life Skills: What do your campers do at camp? Do most know certain skills before they arrive that they use at camp, such as how to set a table, make a bed, or how to share a meal seated at a table? What about shared chores? Personal care?
  • Dress: What do campers wear at camp? Do they change for various activities? Do you require specific clothing? Do current campers wear highend name brands?
  • Gear: What do your campers bring? What is on the packing list? What do they pack it in?
  • Prior Experience/Skills and Area Competencies: Do most campers have experience in skills prior to camp, such as knowing how to swim, play a sport, cook outdoors, etc.? If you are an overnight camp, do most campers have prior overnight experiences?
  • Abilities: What are the typical abilities/ disabilities of your population?
  • Economics: What are the economic backgrounds of current participants? To what resources do they have regular, easy access? Do campers bring money to camp? Do you operate a camp store? What costs money at camp (tuition, transportation, uniforms, linens, charges for e-mail or photo viewing services, outside trips, etc.)?
  • Cultural/Racial/Religious/Ethnic/Orientation/ Etc.: Who are your current campers? What are the shared beliefs? Does your program mission have barriers to participation? What do they believe about the roles of men, women, family, work, etc.?
  • Access to Health Care: What do you provide? Must campers have physicals? Do your current campers have easy access to medical care at home?
  • Food: How many/what types of meals are served daily? Snacks? Special needs?
  • Facilities: Take a good hard look at every aspect of your facilities, from the types of beds, configuration of living spaces, bathrooms, electric outlets, lighting, accessibility, etc.
  • Environmental: What kind of critters are in the woods? Anything that slithers? What might the campers come in contact with? What is the night-noise, freak-out factor?
  • Staff: Take a good look at the demographics of your camp staff.
  • Etc., Etc., Etc. . . . as it relates to your camp program, campers.

Certainly, this list of topics to consider and questions posed is not exhaustive, and you will need to add and modify topics relevant to your camp program. The end result of this self-discovery process should be a list which provides a very clear overarching image of your camp.

Step 2: Getting To Know the Diverse Demographic Group You Intend to Serve

Before successfully integrating new participants in to your camp, you need to understand who they are. It is critical that the creation of a readiness program includes in-depth cultural learning and gaining a clear understanding of the values, expectations, and beliefs of the new group(s). If your camp has gotten to the point of creating a readiness program and this is not the case, hit the re-wind button now. Gaining a cultural understanding before establishing a readiness program is a critical step that cannot be skipped!

In Step 2, you are going to look at the same list of program aspects as in Step 1, but this time applied to (each of) the new group(s) you intend to serve. (If you are looking at serving several new groups, be sure to do this process separately for each.) Again, it is critical to consider every aspect possible of the prospective participants, including typical day/week, if possible, and any experiences relevant to attending your camp program (as is currently operated).

Note that as you go through the process, you may find a need to create new topics, based on your cultural learning or other findings, and then apply the new item added in Step 2 back to Step 1. Again, as in Step 1, the end result of this process should be a list that provides a very clear overarching image of the diverse demographic group(s) you intend to serve.

Step 3: Compare Lists: Define the Gaps and Similarities

Take the lists from Steps 1 and 2, topic by topic, and compare. Make notes of areas of similarities and differences, highlighting areas where there are obvious gaps.

Transportation: Current campers arrive at camp by personal car, driven by parents. The new group has limited access to automobiles.

Dress: Current campers wear bathing suits for swimming. The religious beliefs of the diverse group dictate conservative dress; the usual swimsuit would not be acceptable.

Health Care: Current campers have easy access to regular health care and most have medical insurance. The new group has limited access to medical care and relies on services that are offered free in their community.

Camp Mission: The camp (serving girls only) offers a program focused on developing skills to become independent and self-reliant and has many activities that are based on career development. The new demographic places high value on a traditional role for women as homemakers and mothers, and the importance of this role in a strong family.

Step 4: Determine the Needs and Make a Master Plan for Your Camper Readiness Program

Using the comparative list from Step 3, look at each topic area and figure out what you need to do in order to create an environment that is as welcoming and inclusive for the new camper as possible — and which supports participant success. In other words, how do you level the playing field? The camp should endeavor to create a readiness plan for each topic area where there is a difference between the resources, skills, abilities, expectations, needs, etc., between the typical current participants and the new diverse demographic, giving additional attention to those areas where there is a specific discernable gap between the two groups.

A resident camp is trying to serve a new diverse group of kids who have never been away from home overnight before and have determined a need to provide opportunities to practice staying overnight prior to camp. From what they have learned about the group's culture, they create a plan that begins with an overnight close to home, which includes an adult member of the family. Then they arrange for the children to practice staying overnight several more times close to home, where the adults can come and check in at any time. They gradually proceed to a longer trip at camp.

The camp requires each camper to have an annual physical by a doctor. However, the new group has limited access to regular medical care, and the cost of getting a physical would be a deterrent to participation in camp. The camper readiness plan includes finding ways to assist these participants in getting a camp physical for free/low cost. Further, as they have limited access to transportation, the plan also includes either bringing the doctor to the participants, or providing transportation to where the physicals will take place.

Most of the current campers have taken swimming lessons prior to coming to camp and swim better than the "beginner" level upon arrival at camp. The new diverse group has had limited access to swimming facilities, so most have never been swimming in a real swimming pool. The readiness program will include swimming lessons before the camp session, transportation to and from the lessons, and assistance in purchasing bathing suits.

Choices and Challenges to Change

A camp that makes the commitment to serve new diverse populations, and do it well, will have to embrace the concept of change, and be willing to do so with an understanding of the impact on the camp's operations, possibly on several fronts.

In preparing the camp, and getting the new diverse campers ready to attend, your readiness plan may require that the camp:

  • Provide new services not usually offered, such as providing transportation, bed linens, tuition assistance, and readiness activities during the school year to prepare for summer.
  • Modify services, such as offering a broader scope of health care, new meal options, etc.
  • Build new or modify current facilities, change how facilities are used, add features such as telephones, walkway lighting, nightlights, and facilities for babies of attending families, etc.
  • Hire more staff, modify job descriptions, hire staff from new diverse populations, etc.
  • Modify operating procedures for activities and change policies, such as allowing cell-phones, visitation, dresscodes, etc.
  • Modify written materials and create new marketing strategies, etc.
  • Develop new program models — changes to session lengths, programs that include other family members, or that support specific values of the diverse group.
  • Develop new relationships with community organizations and businesses to create a support system for providing goods and services not formerly required.
  • Develop new or modify fund-raising efforts.

While there will be challenges to making the changes required in order to fully implement the readiness plan, the efforts are well worth the increased success!

What If You Are a “Bad Match”?
Ok, so, you jumped in to this with good intentions but at some point in the evaluative process you discover that the needs of the diverse demographic are far and away more suitable for a program other than who, or what, your camp or organization offers. Maybe there is a significant incompatibility with your mission . . . . Or, it is simply beyond your ability to create a successful experience for the new group at this time, for any number of reasons.

It's far better to discover that it wasn't going to work out in the planning stages, rather than the live-at-campgone- wrong situation. When reaching out to new diverse demographics, camps need to ensure they create a positive experience, at all levels of the program. It is possible the mission of your camp and the needs (values, beliefs, culture) of the prospective participants simply don't match, or you may not have the resources, support, facilities, or staff to do this well, or do it well right now. It's simply not possible for every camp to be the end-all-be-all in meeting the needs for everyone, and that's okay. While it's arguable that everyone deserves and/or benefits from a “camp experience,” we must make sure we preface that statement with a positive camp experience. And a camp experience that is appropriate for the needs of the participants


The Sacred Cows . . . What About Camp Traditions?
This is a very sensitive topic for some, but failing to consider everything done at camp may impact your ability to deliver a quality program to a new diverse demographic.

Four Quick Questions to Ask:
1. Are your traditions appearing to be barriers — real or perceived — to participation by the new group?
2. Are they offensive to your potential new clientele in any way?
3. Could they be the cause of discomfort to a new camper from the diverse group?
4. Are they exclusive, rather than inclusive, in any way to the new group?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, it’s time to take a hard look at your traditions, including what you are willing/unwilling to change and the impact these decisions will have on the experience of the participants from the new demographic.

Diane Tyrrell, C.C.D., M.A.Ed., is the director of Camp Motorsport, president of the Board of Directors for American Camp Association (ACA), Virginias, a member of the ACA 20/20 Taskforce, and an ACA National Board member.

Originally published in the 2009 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.