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Safe Sitter® Goes to Camp
What to do for older campers — the "tween-agers" — too old for a lot of traditional camp activities, too young for others? Three American Camping Association (ACA)-Accredited camps from Indiana found an answer when the Safe Sitter® Program came to their camps in the summer of 2003 for an innovative and unique demonstration project. Safe Sitter® expanded camp program offerings, improved campers' skills, and strengthened their sense of responsibility. The program helped older campers learn to play and work safely with younger ones. Safe Sitter® also connected the camps with their communities — creating safer places for children.
The demonstration project marked a move forward in collaboration with the Safe Sitter® program and the camp community. Earlier conversations with camp personnel had revealed a need to expand program offerings for early adolescents. Camps need new and exciting activities that acknowledge the growing maturity and reliability of young adolescents. Safe Sitter® gave them a chance to get excellent, practical training — teaching them something that they were now old enough to learn. In the process, the program gave many counselor/instructors some skills that they might have lacked. For its part, Safe Sitter® had a need to develop new partnerships at program sites beyond its traditional hospital base. It seemed like a win-win situation.
Why Safe Sitter® Went to Camp
Just as camp is more than a vacation for children, Safe Sitter® is more than a program to help young adolescents make money. Camp and Safe Sitter® programs have the same basic goals — to enhance the health, safety, and welfare of young people and to help them build a sense of self-efficacy — i.e., a sense of personal power to bring about intended results — that will in turn, lead to personal autonomy and positive self-worth. The demonstration project set out to determine, in practical ways, how well Safe Sitter® could fit with the typical camp experience.
ACA also saw potential advantages for counselors and for camps. As Indiana Section President Susie Davis noted at the beginning, "ACA national research shows that the number one concern parents have for their children is safety. I believe the Safe Sitter® program has tremendous capacity to help camp professionals provide personal and group safety training to our campers."
Peg Smith, ACA executive director and also a member of the Safe Sitter® Board of Directors, believes that Safe Sitter® can address some of the new realities being experienced by many American camps:
"Safe Sitter® provides opportunities for increasing the skill inventory of current camp staff as well as preparing future counselors through incorporating the program into camp leadership training for older campers — better sitters today . . . better counselors tomorrow," stated Smith.
The Camp Demonstration Project
The Indiana Section of the American Camping Association helped locate two resident camps and one day camp willing to take part in the demonstration project. Staff members from the camps were brought together for Safe Sitter® training just before the 2003 season opened. Instructor training and materials costs were borne by Safe Sitter®. At the outset, it must be noted that decisions to offer the Safe Sitter® program to campers were made after plans for the 2003 season had been made, brochures sent out, and camp staff hired! Nevertheless, eleven staff members from these camps were recruited and trained to deliver the Safe Sitter® curriculum.
Safe Sitter® Curriculum
Why a Program Just for Tweens?
It has long been recognized that being away from adult supervision increases the vulnerability of young children, but more recently it has been recognized that the "tween-age" has vulnerabilities of its own. Poised to enter larger worlds beyond their own families, they are particularly open to influences — both good and bad — their enlarged worlds offer. As we know both from research and observation, young adolescents feel a need for acceptance by peers, but in contrast to popular opinion, they also need and continue to seek support from parents and other adults. Their sense of self-worth can be easily undercut by shifting friendships and embarrassment about changing bodies — yet they continue to seek out new experiences, new avenues for developing and improving skills, and broader opportunities to become useful members of their communities. They are, in short, looking for ways to develop a sense of personal autonomy. They have outgrown lemonade stands and want to earn some money of their own. Yet in most states, they are too young to get the permits that would enable them to join the fast food or retail workforce.
What We Learned
Most instructors felt that Safe Sitter® had added value to the camp experience, but one felt it to be too structured to fit well into camp. Instructors also believed that adolescents who had participated in the program gained skills they would put to use later and liked having completion cards to take home. The most popular parts of the program from the instructors' standpoint were the emergency procedures (particularly the Heimlich maneuver) and behavior management.
One youth wrote the following summary in answer to final test questions, "Why do you think a babysitting class is important?" and "What is the most important thing you learned in class?"
I think the babysitting class is helpful because:
The theme of increased trust from parents when the student was at home alone or with siblings appeared in other comments as did the idea that Safe Sitter® skills would be put to good use when and if they became parents.
Finally, we learned that campers and CITs older than the "tween" age group for which the current Safe Sitter® training was designed found some of the teaching/learning strategies "childish." They were, however, interested in the content, whether or not they were currently babysitting. Comments from those already in CIT programs indicated that the behavior management techniques were already proving useful to them (or, as one participant put it, "I use a lot of behavior things. I think the whole program was important"). Generally, however, a consensus emerged to the effect that teaching strategies will need revision and some content added if Safe Sitter® is to be used to train older adolescents and/or older CITs.
In addition, we learned about another camp reality — that counselors are called upon to wear more than one hat. To maintain flexibility of program for the campers and to accommodate multiple staff responsibilities, having several trained instructors on hand was a necessary asset at the Goldman Union Camp. This would undoubtedly be true in many camps.
Student manuals cost $15 for each participant. The $15 cost of each student manual is generally included in a course fee set by the sponsoring organization and paid by the participant.
Maintaining continuity of instructors would reduce future costs. We learned that even among the camps included in the demonstration, ability to absorb program costs for another season would vary greatly. Two of the three camps hoped to receive outside funding rather than drawing on already tight operating budgets. Sources of funds that might be tapped for camp programs include corporate sponsors, community foundations, service organizations, professional associations, hospitals and health-care service providers, and individual donors. Many camps already charge special activity fees for horseback riding, canoe trips, and the like, and could charge campers an activity fee to cover the cost of a Safe Sitter® program. More information about funding Safe Sitter® is available on the Web site: www.safesitter.org and from the national office of Safe Sitter®. The national office will help you work out a budget tailored to your camp's situation.
Is Safe Sitter® Right for Your Camp?
Safe Sitter® meets the goals of positive youth development programs — sometimes known as the "5 Cs" (Roth 2004). Participants gain new skills and knowledge of child development, as well as how to respond to both normal and emergency situations — a decision-making process that results in increased feelings of competence. Their confidence is enhanced as they gain a sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem. Increased knowledge of how to control their own actions in a real role with real responsibility, gains in respect for the youth in their care, and strengthened understanding of the need for strict standards contribute to the development of their own character. Rising feelings of caring and compassion are focused on the important role of the baby-sitter, and finally, as they provide this valuable service, Safe Sitter® provides young adolescents with connections to other families and to their communities. The "5 Cs" represent the same goals that most camps have for their campers.
But, is Safe Sitter® right for your camp? Answers to the following questions may help you decide:
Judith Erickson is a member of the Safe Sitter® board of directors. Staff members of Safe Sitter, Inc.'s national headquarters in Indianapolis look forward to talking with you and helping you decide if Safe Sitter® is right for your camp. Contact Safe Sitter, Inc., 5670 Caito Drive, Suite 172, Indianapolis, IN 46226, 800-255-4089, www.safesitter.org.
Originally published in the 2004 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.