A Career in Organized Camping: Stand Up and Be Counted

by Rita Yerkes, Ed.D.

As the August sun sets, camps all over the country have just concluded another summer season. Campers have returned home, recounting stories of adventures shared and talking with their friends and parents about returning next summer to that special place, "CAMP."

In the meantime, senior staff and counselors have returned to their homes and either a "real world" job and/or another semester in college. They have been encouraged to seek professional opportunities and/or major in career fields that offer a secure job market and future by friends and family. Often a career choice in camp administration and or programming seems to be absent as one of the options in the discussion.

As a first-year counselor many seasons ago, I remember how motivated and excited I was over my first summer working at camp — becoming a part of a team, work ing with children, and watching them develop their activity and social skills with peers and adults. Being outdoors and having wonderful mentors were gifts that camp gave to me over and over again.

When I returned to college that fall semester I set about looking for a major and a career in "CAMP." As was the case for so many who seek a career in "camp work," there did not seem to be many pathways or mentors encourag ing me to pursue this profession. In fact, many advisors along the way discouraged me to take this direction. And, then there were well-meaning parents and friends who asked, "When are you going to pursue a real career?"

A Personal Calling and Passion to Make a Difference in the Lives of Others

The decision to pursue "camp work" as a profession can be challenging and at times confusing. Those of us who have expe rienced this journey can perhaps relate to a quote from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll:

Alice: "Will you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
Cheshire Cat: "That depends a good deal on where you want to go."
Alice: "I don’t care."
Cheshire Cat: "Then it doesn’t matter which way you go."

This article shares some personal and professional lessons learned along the way in my career journey and suggestions on making "camp work" your profession and career choice. In our global world, the economic challenges and needs are great but in looking at our camp foremothers and fathers, it was challenging for them as well. The challenge to all of us who choose this work is that both owners and directors along with staff and educators are needed to serve as champions to mentor and encourage the development of current and future leaders in our camp community and create jobs. Most importantly, our world needs the many contributions to children, adults, families, and our communities that the "camp experience" provides.

Our Leadership Challenge: The Development of Current and Future Camp Leaders

In 2011, organized camping will celebrate 150 years. The American Camp Association (ACA) has created the 20/20 Vision which is "20 million campers and 20 million ACA participants by 2020." Discussion continues on ACA structure and governance. Just as important is the development of current and future camp and association leaders to replace the many set to retire or those who left or never entered the field.

If we are to promote the value of the camp experience and succeed with the 20/20 Vision, it will take the entire camp community and closely related fields to do so. There will be many opportunities to recruit the best and the brightest current and future leaders to our ranks, retain them or lose them to other fields. To succeed, we need leaders who have passion, commitment, the ability to adapt to constant changes, and the desire to make a difference in the lives of others.

Professional Mentors: Stand Up and Be Counted

Every profession advocates the need of a mentor to succeed. Organized camping has many successful camp directors and senior staff who can provide inspiration, guidance, networking opportunities, and jobs for younger staff. For example, Nadine Wilson, retired associate director for Green Cove Camp for Girls worked tirelessly (thirty-seven years) providing a professional example, support, and mentorship for countless campers and staff to enhance their career in camp administration and programming.

Camp directors and senior staff can assist camp professionals by providing internship opportunities at camp and by taking a personal and professional interest in staff who demonstrate an interest and talent to work in the field. They play an extraordinary role in providing educational information, opportunities to attend camp conferences, funding to attend, and most important introducing them to their own camp professional networks. It is often the camp director or senior staff members who are the first contacts for our young professionals. Their encouragement can make the difference in helping them toward a professional career in camp or a closely related field. Think about what you can do to this end and motivate other directors and senior staff to do the same not only at camp but all year long.

The Role of Education

As in any profession, camp administration education and continuing education are needed throughout one's career. In college and after, it is important to explore majors such as camp administration, outdoor experiential education, programming, and outdoor recreation. Related fields such as small business, experiential education, human services, social work, and tourism offer close connections with camp work as well. Full-time positions require a bachelor's degree and often a master's degree is preferred. Attending continuing education workshops and professional conferences are important as well as staying current, learning new techniques, and career networking.

Many human service fields have a direct relationship to camp administration and youth development. Figure 1 displays the many pathways to a career in camp administration and programming.

For most who seek a career in camp administration, their first experience is often working at a summer camp. Many camps may offer year-round programming to schools in the form of outdoor environmental education. In addition, they may offer special programs for schools in conflict resolution and diversity awareness. Camp and conference centers also offer executive training programs for businesses. Many of these camps have full-time, year-round program directors and facility managers to facilitate program and run this part of the operation.

Diversity and service learning programs in schools, colleges, and businesses utilize camp programming and their sites for educational retreats. Many communities and schools are seeking sites that offer these programs due to the changes in cultural demographics and teaching community service by giving back to the greater society. Examples include the Student Conservation Association, AmeriCorps, and the YMCA.

Another career track includes outdoor outfitters who provide tours and trips for clientele related to camp wilderness offerings. Resorts have employed full-time outdoor trip guides and commercial outfitters to serve this need. In addition, many therapeutic programs operate year-round outdoor facilities to serve a growing need for teen and family programs.

Finally, higher education has seen a resurgence of first-year programs for first-year students that utilize wilderness experiences. These colleges recruit staff for their campus outdoor recreation programs, first-year student programs, and faculty positions in the programs that offer careers in experiential outdoor education, youth development, and recreation administration.

Strategies for Career Development in Camp Administration and Programming

  • Conduct a continual personal and professional self-appraisal every (six) months.
    • Identify personal career goals.
    • What kind of personal life is desired not only by you but also your spouse or significant other?
    • Identify a balance between personal and career goals and discuss them with your family and significant other.
  • Continue education via advanced degrees, continuing education, and conferences.
  • Serve in professional associations on committees or as an officer or committee volunteer.
  • Read current articles on organized camping and related fields.
  • Network with professionals in organized camping and related fields.
  • Keep prepared resumes and business cards on hand for different types of camp positions.
  • Support diversity policies and hiring practices.
  • Keep references updated on your goals, objectives, and career changes.
  • Take good care of your references and send thank you notes when you are awarded a position!!
  • Be open to related fields in organized camping for possible career linkages such as education, small business, social work, recreation administration, public administration, tourism, and youth development, etc.
  • Consider learning a second language such as Spanish.
  • Study dealing with constant change and how it affects organizations and clientele.
  • Be ready to deal with change; shift happens!
  • When unexpected change occurs, stop, reflect, and ask "Will this matter 100 years from now?"
  • Continue to check commitment to personal relationships first and how your career choices are compatible with them.
  • Study politics and power in the "organization."
  • Mentor another professional yourself to give back to the profession.
  • Visit online job centers (see Web Resources for Camp Related Jobs).

The Use of Technology in Career Development

  • Develop budget and spreadsheet data interpretation skills.
  • Keep abreast of the new technology and work on computer literacy.
  • Learn Web page development skills.
  • Develop a personal professional Web page.
  • Understand the professional etiquette and use of social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
  • Visit organization Web pages in related fields.

See the Big Picture

The interview process is a two-way street. It is important for the job candidate to ask questions and treat the process as an interview of the organization. You can determine "the big picture" of the organization through initial Internet research, contacting additional references, and the interview process. Unfortunately, no single question identifies everything you would like to know about the organization; however, you may want to consider some of the suggested questions listed below:

Align personal and organizational missions.

  • Determine your interests in programming and populations served.
  • What do you want to accomplish through camp administration and or programming?
  • Search for organizations that match your personal interests with organizational missions.

Does the organization value their employees?

  • What is the application process?
  • What is your staff retention rate?
  • How long have potential supervisors been with the organization?
  • Does the organization provide continuing education such as certification courses?
  • Do you have any former employees whom I could contact to learn more about the position and organization?

Does the organization adhere to industry risk management and accreditation standards?

  • Is the organization accredited?
  • Does the program have written policies and procedures?
  • Do the job qualifications require matching certifications?
  • Does the organization conduct outcomes-based assessments on its services?

Will I grow in this position?

• What are the experience levels of my co-staff? • Does the organization foster staff collaboration? • Is my supervisor available to mentor my progress through the position? • Do you complete staff evaluations? • Can you describe the staff-evaluation process? • Do you provide opportunities for staff development?

Conclusion — Stand Up and Be Counted

The world today is challenging, ever changing, and coping with severe economic problems and societal needs. According to Eleanor Eells (1986):

The 1930 decade saw depression. People who had worked hard and saved money to buy a little home or a piece of land saw everything wiped out. Men who had worked steadily since the age of thirteen lost jobs and couldn't find work. The history tells the use of camps and other facilities by concerned staff to provide a chance to help harvest crops on nearby farms, to start men's study and vocational groups, and to provide "made work" of some merit. (p. 141)

Although the quote above appeared in the History of Organized Camping: the First 100 Years by Eleanor Eells, it reminds us that we can not only get through the challenges we face today, but we have a wealth of expertise and contribution to make to our children, families, and communities. It also reminds us about those directors and senior staff who were leaders and mentors before us and who brought us to this juncture today.

It will take all of us working together to reach our vision of "20 million campers and 20 million ACA participants by 2020"; to promote camp; and to both attract and retain our future and current leaders. There will be many who will tempt our future leaders with fame and fortune to come and work for them. However, how many times have you spoken to a colleague who chose this route only to find out that it did not lead to happiness and satisfaction? Perhaps we can take inspiration from Camp Fire USA when it created the Law of the Camp Fire:

The Law of the Camp Fire
Seek beauty
Give service
Pursue knowledge
Be trustworthy
Hold on to health
Glorify work
Be happy
(Camp Fire Girls, Inc. 1913)

Our world needs us more than ever before. Stand up and be counted!

References
Campfire Girls, Inc. (1913). The Book of the Camp Fire Girls. Brooks Press. New York.

Covey, S. (1991). Principled-Centered Leadership. Fireside. New York.

Eells, E. (1986). History of Organized Camping: The First 100 Years. American Camp Association. Indiana.

Harragan, B. (1977). Games Your Mother Never Taught You. Warner. New York

Henderson, K. (1997). Just recreation: ethics, gender, and equity. Journal of Park & Recreation Administration. Vol. 15, No. 2. pp. 16-31.

Karsten, M. (1994). Management & Gender: Issues & Attitudes. Praeger. London.

Peters, T. (1992). Liberation Management. Fawcett. New York.

Peters, T. (1994). The Pursuit of Wow! Vintage. New York.

Author's note: This article is dedicated to an amazing associate camp director, Nadine Wilson, who through her example and dedication became my inspiration to follow my heart and make the journey into a career in organized camping and related fields, which has continued to be a forty plus year journey.

Rita Yerkes, Ed.D., is president of Yerkes Consulting, L.L.C., with a mission to help those who help others in education, camp administration, and recreation services. Contact the author at ryerkes@yerkesconsulting.com.

Originally published in the 2009 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.

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