Why Won’t My Support Staff Come Back to Camp? How to Increase the Return Rate of Your Behind-the-Scenes Employees

by Gail Siegal

While my job is almost impossible to describe to anyone outside of the camp universe, those that understand it are incredibly jealous. Unlike most professionals, I have the privilege of interacting with phenomenal young people from around the world who are looking for the opportunity to work at a U.S. summer camp. While I enjoy my job all year, the most rewarding moments come in July. Each summer, I visit my participants at camp and see how the cultural exchange program that we (and they!) have been preparing for all year actually plays out. I first meet many of these participants the previous December or January in their home countries, where we talk about their goals for the experience and what they can expect at camp. I see them again at their arrival orientation, when they are jet-lagged but excited, amazed that the summer has finally arrived. By the time I see them at camp, some of them have only grown more excited about this opportunity. Others, however, have lost all passion for the program.

A few years ago, we knew why support staff weren't returning to camp. The U.S. Department of State limited the number of returning support staff in any given summer to 10 percent of the total number of support staff from the previous summer. (For example, if one international cultural exchange organization brought over five hundred support staff in 2001, that same organization could only bring fifty second-timers in 2002.) No support staff participant could work more than two summers. In theory, these regulations allowed more students to have the experience of coming to the U.S. at least once. In practice, camps found themselves having to train almost entirely new groups of support staff every summer. Now that these regulations have been lifted, have you seen an increase in your number of returning support staff? If not, you may want to take a closer look at your camp culture.

Last summer, arriving at one camp, I was met by an enthusiastic participant who could not wait to show me around. Our tour of the camp grounds ended at the laundry room, where she introduced me to all of her co-workers and her supervisor, then proudly explained her responsibilities.

At another camp, I found another participant who was eager to show me her camp. She, however, wanted to show me how unappetizing the food was and how cramped the living conditions were. When we ended the tour in her workplace, the kitchen, she shared only complaints and criticisms with me.

I visited many camps this summer and found myself trying to pinpoint why, concretely, some support staff found camp to be such a rewarding experience and others could not wait for their nine weeks to be over. On the surface, the two camps I described above were extremely similar. I couldn't discern any real difference between the quality of the food, the space in the cabins, or the working conditions in general. But when I thought back to the two participants' motivation for participating in the program, I realized only one had the opportunity to create the experience she had envisioned for herself months before. The difference between the two camps really lay in each camp's attitude towards participating in a cultural exchange program. Their level of commitment was reflected in their hiring choices, orientation setup, daily schedule, and overall policies. These elements directly affected whether or not each participant was able to accomplish the goals she had set for the summer. While the first participant had found exactly the growth opportunities she was seeking, the second was disillusioned to learn that camp would not be the life-changing experience she had heard about from past participants.

As you begin hiring for summer 2005, think carefully about why staff would want to come to camp in the first place. If you are able to provide an environment where staff can meet their objectives, you'll find yourself with a happy group of workers who can't wait to return. When we ask potential participants why they are interested in our program and what they hope to accomplish this summer, we hear the same responses over and over:

  • They want to improve their English. While there are many reasons to hire a diverse staff, this is one of the most compelling. If all of your staff speak the same language, they will feel silly speaking to one another in English. Hire staff from as many different countries as possible. For those that do come from the same country (or speak the same language), split them up and assign them different job responsibilities.
  • They want to make American friends. These participants have chosen the U.S., not Canada, Australia, or the U.K., because they want to meet Americans. Are your American staff welcoming your international staff into your camp environment? Do you see them taking days off together? Does your international staff visit the American staff at home after the summer has ended? If not, then you need to make a conscious effort to integrate these two groups as soon as they arrive for orientation. House them together. Train them together. Use all of those games, songs, mixers, and activities you have accumulated to unite your entire staff, not just the counselors or specialists. If you continue to see a separation between American and international staff, pull some of your returning American staff aside and ask them to make an effort to include international staff in more informal social activities, including time off. You have the power to change the structure of social interaction at
    your camp.
  • They want to meet people from other countries. I am constantly astonished by the number of camp directors who truly believe that participants of one nationality, as a rule, do not like participants of another nationality. Is it possible that some participants will come into the summer with prejudices? Absolutely. We all have biases that we've learned from our home environments. However, no one is getting on a plane and traveling halfway around the world in hopes of confirming that those prejudices are correct. These participants have signed up for a cultural exchange program; they are incredibly open-minded and are ready to get to know people from all over the world. If you have experienced a divide between nationalities for more than one summer, then someone in your camp environment is perpetuating that divide. Find out who it is, and figure out a way to address it, either through diversity training or through dismissal of the "bad egg."
  • They want to see the U.S. Granted, depending on the location of your camp, there's really only so much that your staff will be able to see during the summer. But days off are valuable and you need to make sure that your staff are able to (easily!) get away from camp. If it is difficult for them to get rides with the staff who do have cars, can you run a van into town or to the bus station a couple of times a day? Could you negotiate a reduced rate with a local rental car company? Also, try to reward hardworking staff with a little flexibility in terms of time off. If someone wants to work through one week in order to take two consecutive days off the next, do your best to allow it.
  • They want to be at camp. You know that you have lost many past or potential support staff to work and travel programs. Why? The same participant can earn significantly more money washing dishes at a restaurant than washing dishes at your camp. So, when participants do choose to come to camp, they are doing so because they want to be in a camp environment and interact with kids. Most of your support staff have significant experience with children, and many of them would prefer to come as counselors but feel that their English is not strong enough. While they must understand that their jobs are their first priority, they should not feel excluded from everything else happening at camp. Are you offering your support staff use of the camp facilities at times that are convenient for them? Do you make sure that they are included in all-camp and evening activities? Can they speak to children on a daily basis? Have you organized "International Nights" when your staff can share their cultures with the rest of the camp? If not, you are going to lose those support staff next summer.

You are not, of course, solely responsible for determining whether or not your staff enjoy the summer. As we tell our participants at orientation, each of them has the power to decide if they will have a good experience at camp. You, however, are in control of your camp environment, and you can decide whether you are going to make it easy or difficult for participants to accomplish their objectives. If you encourage your employees to take advantage of their time here and work towards their goals, you are going to find yourself with a happier and more productive staff. And because happy participants are returning participants, you are going to make your job far easier in the long run.

Gail Siegal is the program manager of InterExchange Camp USA. Prior to working for InterExchange, Siegal spent fourteen summers at camp as a camper and staff member. She has also lived abroad and served as an advisor to international students. For more information contact Siegal at 800-597-1722 or gsiegal@interexchange.org or visit www.InterExchange.org/campusa.

Originally published in the 2005 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.