Who's on the Bus? (and how long will they be there?)

by Kurt Podeszwa

What makes our camps great? Getting the right people on the bus, in the right seat, and keeping them there (Collins 2001). Staffing is the most important thing we do. As a camp director, I wear many hats—fundraiser, cook, public speaker, toilet plunger, standards visitor, community representative, and even mechanic. Ok, so I am not really a mechanic; in fact, our facilities manager won't even let me near the tools if he can help it, but the rest is true. Of all the jobs I have, the most important thing that I do is staffing. Recruiting, training, and keeping the kind of staff that will take your organization forward is not pure chance—it is hard work, and it starts with you.

Who Are You?

Before we can talk about recruiting, training, and keeping staff, we need to talk about who we are. What kind of staff do you want? Then that's who you need to be. I want my staff to be silly, get in front of campers and make fools of themselves, so that's who I am. You attract who you are. Scary, but true. John Maxwell calls that the Law of Magnetism (Maxwell 1998). When you recruit, train, and lead staff, they are taking their lead from you—not in what you say, but in what you do.

The Role Model Principle: People listen more to what you do than what you say. In everything we do, we need to reflect back to the role model principle.


The best way to build a good team is to hire good people. Sounds simple enough, but it means being very picky about your staff. I have never regretted not hiring someone. That may sound cold, but it's true. On the other hand, when I have settled for a staff person, it has very seldom worked out to be the best for the staff person, for camp, or for the campers. Don't skip over the part where I said it did not work out best for the staff person. If your camp is not the right fit, you are doing a disservice to that person by hiring him or her. From full-time staff to seasonal staff, we need to make sure that we are recruiting people that fit our mission, our goals, our camp culture.

How Do You Recruit?

I hope that the answer to this is different every year. It is for me. There are lots of avenues to recruiting—online, job fairs, former campers, and of course, training our returning staff to recruit.

Job Fairs
I do not attend many summer camp job fairs anymore, but when I do it amazes me when I see camp leadership staff huddled around talking to each other, sitting at the table, and doing other work or reading, or just standing there waiting for people to come to them. I wonder what kind staff will be drawn to them.

I do like to recruit at colleges where I already have a lot of staff. This spring at Texas A&M University, I invited staff to come whenever they could and hang out at our booth. They arrived, a few at a time, right before the busy time. The first thing they did was go and buy poster board and markers. They made signs that said, "Make a difference at Camp For All" and "Free Hugs." They lined the hall and asked everyone if they wanted free hugs. People walking by had no problem figuring out what kind of summer they would have at Camp For All.

Social Networking Sites
By now, we have all been inundated with information about social networking sites and the dangers that await there. I suggest we use it instead of fear it. MySpace and Facebook both have features that allow users to post bulletins that will show up on their friends' sites. "Guess where I'm working this summer?" can be a simple tag that will spark their interest. It's how our staff are communicating, and we should, too.

Other Ideas
A few other ideas include offering cash to returning staff who recruit someone and utilizing leadership training programs to hire staff who used to be campers. However you get your name out there, always ask yourself "who are you when you are recruiting?" and remember you are always recruiting.


So we have recruited the best staff—not just the ones who applied—and now we need to get them ready for camp. We need to think of training in two ways: the ongoing training that we do all summer, and for many of us all year, as well as the orientation training that we typically do at the beginning of the summer.

Training starts during the recruitment process. Make sure that applicants understand what will be expected of them. Tell them about the really long hours, the repetitive food, the lack of privacy, the 114 degree heat. Ok, maybe the heat part is just for those of us in Texas! Don't be afraid of scaring a potential staff member by being clear about your standards. It is worse to lose him or her later when you have to enforce those standards.

We need to make sure we have a clear understanding of what we want to accomplish with training. My BHAG—Big Hairy Audacious Goal—with staff training is to build a team. I hire people who will complement each other, and then I make sure they spend time getting to know each other through fun, games, relaxation, and long hours of training. During orientation week, we went to a local fun park and spent two hours just having fun. They will be living together for fourteen weeks, so they need to have a strong base.

When finished with orientation training, you cannot expect staff to know everything about their job. Instead, they need to be able to say that they understand their job, and know what is expected of them. They also need to understand the mission, goals for the summer, and where to go for help.

There are lots of books out there on things to do during training, how to train big concepts, and how to decide what to train. I do not need to recreate those here, but I will talk briefly about how we train.

My degree is in English Education, and during my student teaching I attended the Illinois Association of Teachers of English conference. It was my last semester of college, and I had already caught the camp bug. While reading the schedule of sessions, one jumped out at me—Teaching English Experientially. That was the session for me. I circled it and put a star by it. I got there, sat in the front row, and could not wait to see what we were going to do. It was a lecture. How do you lecture about experiential learning? I still don't know the answer to that; in fact, I cannot remember a thing that was said. How can we train staff for twelve hours (if they're lucky) in a day and expect them to remember a lecture? We can't. They won't remember.

So my friend DJ Newport, vice president of camping and recreation at TimberPointe Outdoor Center, and I have put together a session on how to train experientially. Here are three ideas that DJ and I have used and one that my staff came up with this year.

Evening Programs
The Camp For All full-time program staff created a game to teach the setting up and tearing down of evening activities. We break the group into three teams and give them twenty minutes to set up and tear down an evening activity. Using the check-lists that they will use during the summer, they get points for time and creativity and get deducted points if things are not set up or put away correctly. They work as a team, check each other's work, and have fun.

Conflict Resolution
Two returning staff members are chosen to have a day-long conflict that ends up in a shouting match. The actors need to be coached on what to do and what not to do. Things I tell them to do as a build-up to the big argument are: talk about the other during meals, roll their eyes when the other is speaking to the group, have minor conflicts during the day, and enlist other staff to be on their side. Things to do during the big argument are: talk about last year, start sitting and talking, end up standing and shouting, and use phrases like "you always" or "you never." This comes to a head when they are waiting for leadership staff to arrive and talk about interpersonal relationships. Both actors storm out of the room just before I come in and say, "Interpersonal relationships, what that really means is conflict resolution." When the two staff come back in, we laugh and give them a round of applause. Then we talk about the things they did that added to the conflict. We discuss the way that multiple people got involved and then process how to disagree in a way that is respectful to each other.

Policies and Procedures
Everyone's favorite topic! We start this with the Manual Relay. We split staff into groups of five to ten people. Set the same number of staff manuals as you have teams at one end of the room, or outside, on tables. Manuals should be kept closed. The leader needs to designate a starting area. Ask a question of the staff that has an answer in the staff manual. The team must run to the staff manual and find the answer in the manual. Answers do not count unless they are read from the staff manual, and staff can give you the correct page. It gets people reading the manual, especially if you have good prizes.

Missing Camper Procedures
Each staff member makes a sock puppet during the Arts and Crafts training program. All puppets need to be named—the names need to be written on the puppets and the names need to be put on a roster. Staff will need to bring their puppet with them everywhere during staff training. They can ask other staff to watch the puppet briefly, but need to know where their puppet is at all times. I ask that staff not put the "camper" in their pockets or on their arm, but hold on to them. If they leave their puppet somewhere, a member of the leadership staff places it somewhere at camp. When they notice it missing, they start the missing camper procedures. This trains camper care and emergency procedures at the same time.

These are just a few ideas, and you will have more. I know, because you program for your campers creatively. Do the same thing for your staff. Remember the role model principle. People pay attention more to what you do than what you say.


How much does it cost to train a new staff member? I am sure that the amount is different for all of us, but I am also as sure that if we figured it out it would be high. It is much more cost effective to keep good staff than to recruit and train new people. How do we do that? The Gallup organization identified what they called the twelve key dimensions that will measure the likelihood that an organization will attract and keep the best people. Here are the key points that stand out for me in relation to the camp industry.

Key Points

  • Knowing What's Expected
    Seems simple enough. People want to know what the expectations are. We train our staff to be clear about expectations with campers, but are we role modeling that with staff? If expectations are not clear, staff will be hesitant and indecisive, or they will make decisions based on what they think the expectations are (Gallup, March 22, 1999).
  • Materials and Equipment
    The best people can do nothing without the best resources. All of us need to watch the bottom line. However, we have to pay attention to what having old or inappropriate materials and equipment does to the morale of staff (Gallup, March 29, 1999).
  • Doing What I Do Best
    People want to be successful. All of us like the feeling we get when we are in our niche and doing what we love and are good at. Spend more time letting staff do what they do well and less on trying to get better at their weaknesses (Gallup, April 5, 1999).
  • Recognition or Praise
    According to Gallup, only 39 percent of people in the work force are completely satisfied with the recognition they receive. I can hear you saying, "Well, the regular work force is not camp." This is true, but how often at camp do we blanket praise? We tell our staff what a great job they are doing, but is it specific? Is it based on good work, or good feelings? The key here is good work. If everyone is praised for everything, no one believes it. Praise must be sincere, specific, immediate, and public. Staff will know if you are just trying to make them feel good (Gallup, April 12, 1999).
  • My Opinions Seem to Count
    All employees want to feel that they are making significant contributions to their workplaces. The ways supervisors hear and process employees' ideas will shape, to a large degree, whether or not they feel valued for their contributions. We are all moving fast. Camp is a busy time, and we do not always feel like we have time to hear new ideas. We don't have time not to. We should seek out the opinions and ideas of people who have good ones. Give credit publicly for those ideas and opinions—and encourage the participation of all of your staff (Gallup, May 3, 1999).
  • My Company's Mission or Purpose
    This may have been surprising for the corporate world to hear, but not to us in the camp industry. A deeply felt sense of purpose in life leads to excellence. Human beings want to belong to something of significance and meaning. They want to know they are making a difference—contributing to an important endeavor. The best camps give their employees a sense of purpose, help them feel they belong, and enable them to make a difference (Gallup, May 10, 1999).
  • I Have Friends at Work
    Relationships are the key to success. We know this already. Relationships are our business, and when we put a team together we need to pay attention to how staff may interact with each other. I said that my BHAG for training is to build a great team. We need to schedule time for staff to play and get to know each other. When we focus on relationships, we think of others instead of ourselves, and that is camp (Gallup, May 26, 1999).
  • Opportunities to Learn and Grow
    How are we growing our staff? Regional conferences are available to which we can bring multiple staff at a discounted rate. We can help them grow in our profession by allowing staff to become standards visitors, speak at conferences, and lead parts of our training. You grow your organization by growing your people (Gallup, June 7, 1999).

What is missing from this list? Money? It is not a motivating factor. You will not attract the best people to your camp because of money. However, you may lose them because of the lack of money. I have heard camp directors talk about how their mission encourages them to pay low and keep staff. In the short term that might work; however, strategic leaders will see that it costs less to keep a staff member than it does to replace and retrain.

As I have moved from seasonal staff member to full-time staff to camp director, my focus has shifted from campers to staff. We change lives — campers' lives, and the lives of our staff. So, what's your plan to recruit, train, and keep the best people on your bus?

Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don't.New York, HarperCollins Publishers.
Maxwell, J. C. (1998). The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publisher.
The Gallup Organization. (March 22, 1999). Item 1: Knowing What's Expected. The Gallup Management Journal.
The Gallup Organization. (March 29, 1999).Item 2: Materials and Equipment. The Gallup Management Journal.
The Gallup Organization. (April 5, 1999). Item 3: Doing What I Do Best. The Gallup Management Journal.
The Gallup Organization. (April 12, 1999). Item 4: Recognition or Praise. The Gallup Management Journal.
The Gallup Organization. (May 3, 1999). Item 7: My Opinions Seem to Count. The Gallup Management Journal.
The Gallup Organization. (May 10, 1999). Item 8: My Company's Mission or Purpose. The Gallup Management Journal.
The Gallup Organization. (May 26, 1999). Item 10: I Have a Best Friend At Work. The Gallup Management Journal.
The Gallup Organization. (June 7, 1999). Item 12: Opportunities to Learn and Grow. The Gallup Management Journal.

Kurt Podeszwa is the director of Camp For All in Texas, a camp for children and adults with special needs and chronic illness. He has presented at conferences for the American Camp Association, the Association for Experiential Education, Christian Camping International, and Illinois Parks and Recreation Association, as well as many school and community groups.

Originally published in the 2007 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.