Appreciating Staff

by Chris Rollins

The summer season is in full swing. Your campers have arrived, and your staff members are busy with programs, activities, and campers’ concerns. You’ve planned the summer program, signed your contracts, sweated over the registration, reviewed the health forms, and selected the menus. You’re even so far ahead this summer that you have the camper evaluations printed and post-camp clean-up already planned. Nothing has been forgotten, right? Wrong!

What about the staff? Wait a minute, you say, they’ve turned in their W-2s, the I-9s, the health forms, and you’ve set up their payroll. You’ve completed precamp training and have a few all-staff functions planned for their nights off. You haven’t forgotten the staff. Yes, but have you planned for how and when to show your appreciation to your staff members?

Showing Appreciation Is Easy

Showing staff their work is appreciated usually takes a backseat during the camp season. Parents call, accidents happen, campers raise issues, and programs take place. All of these things seem to be more important than saying "thank you." Additionally, there is a perception that showing staff appreciation will put a strain on an already tight budget, that tokens of appreciation must be extravagant, or that the activities will take too much time to carry out.

Acknowledging the work your staff members do doesn’t have to be time-consuming or costly. By offering your staff reassurance and positive reinforcement during several key periods of anxiety in the camp season, you will lead them to want to interact with campers and parents in a positive manner.

Jilting the Precamp Jitters

After the employment agreement has been signed, but before camp begins, staff members experience precamp jitters. Their friends, significant others, and family members may ask in horror: "What have you done!" "You’re going away for the entire summer?" or "You’ll be living in a tent with no air-conditioning?" The staff may feel some anxiety about their decision. If their feelings of insecurity aren’t resolved, they may not show up on check-in day or they may quit during precamp training.

A simple way to reduce the precamp jitters is to keep in contact with your potential staff members prior to camp. Send preprinted postcards or form letters to each staff member once or twice a month from the time they are hired until the time camp begins. Have voice contact with each staff member at least six weeks prior to camp, see what questions they have, and try to alleviate their anxiety.

During precamp training have staff share with each other why they came to camp. Plan activities to help identify the staff’s relationship to the mission of the organization and to its members.

Downing First Session Doubts

Staff may also feel anxious during the first session. Whether staff members are first-time counselors or seasoned veterans, opening day of the camp season can make their stomachs sink. Questions race through their minds, such as What if campers don’t like me or what we have planned? or What if someone gets hurt or homesick?

New staff members worry that they didn’t learn anything in precamp training. Returning staff members think that they should have paid a bit more attention during a session that they thought was repetitive and boring.

To combat these doubts, have returning staff members mentor new staff. The returning staff members can share their experiences and knowledge, and new staff receive extra support through the first two-week initiation process, giving both a needed confidence boost. Also during this time, plan simple, quick staff energy boosters, such as giving out soda or having drawings for personal care items staff need at camp.

Beating the First Paycheck Blues

The third period of misgivings occurs after counselors receive their first paycheck. Until now, staff have been running completely on adrenaline. They have tried to be caring, supportive staff members, while getting no sleep, and they have invested all their emotional energy in the campers. Payday comes, and you hand them a paycheck, maybe give them a day off, and tell them to do it again tomorrow. They are left questioning themselves and wondering if this is all they get for their twenty-four-hour, six-day-a-week commitment.

To lessen the first paycheck blues, stuff the envelopes with poems, small toys, stickers, or gift certificates from sponsoring organizations. Put a personal note in each envelope or include a pre-stamped postcard so staff can send a note to a close friend.

Squelching the Mid-Season Slump

Mid-season presents new challenges for staff. New staff aren’t new anymore, and returning staff are experiencing all the familiar challenges of camp that they forgot over the long winter season. The heat, the food, and the routine have set in. Staff members are tired, hot, and in need of a pick-me-up. They may feel overwhelmed because a great deal of work is still ahead of them.

At the mid-season break, schedule a sleep-in breakfast or an afternoon siesta to give staff a well-deserved respite. Scheduling down-time on a Sunday or having an all-camp function will allow the staff to spend time with each other and the campers. Mid-summer is also a great time to have a pizza party or a cake-and-ice-cream or sundae party for the staff. Consider rotating staff in and out of their units using the program staff as temporary fill-ins.

Deflating the Third-Quarter Doldrums

The third-quarter doldrums set in when there is one to two weeks left in the season. Most staff members have enjoyed camp and don’t want the season to end. Balanced with this comes the reality that school or a job waits for them after camp. For some of the younger staff members, their lives may have significantly changed, and they may be anxious about leaving the safe confines of the camp gate. Odds are that none of your staff have their post-camp affairs in order.

Now is a great time to give each staff member a quarter for a phone call or thirty extra minutes of break time to schedule travel arrangements or to set school schedules. Use of the fax machine is often greatly appreciated.

Lessening the Post-Camp Letdown

When the season finally comes to an end and the roller-coaster ride of the summer comes to a screeching halt, staff often need extra support. As campers leave, staff are left wondering how they became so close to their charges in such a short time. They need help saying good-bye and understanding how to evaluate their time with your organization.

Planning a staff banquet at the end of the season sets aside time for staff to reflect on the season and on what they have taken away from the program. Finding suitable time for good-byes, developing a yearbook, and giving each staff member a list of year-round addresses will help them leave camp on a positive note. Plan to keep in contact after the camp season ends by having a holiday party or by sending holiday notes. If staff feel they are appreciated even months after the season has ended, they are more likely to return the following summer.

Tokens of Appreciation Don't Have to Be Costly

Budgeting for these events may be easier and cheaper than you might think. A mere $5.00 per person per season will cover what you want to accomplish. For example, prepaid postcards for staff to send a note to a friend are $0.20 each; generic cans of soda can be bought for $0.15 each; an extra dessert or a slight alteration to the menu may cost less than $0.25 each; and photocopies, even at a commercial copier, are less than $0.10 a copy.

Ways to Say "Thank You" Are Unlimited

You can show staff you appreciate their efforts in many other ways as well.

Camp buddies
Staff can pull each other’s names out of a hat and then strive to send notes and pick-me-ups to their camp "buddies" throughout the season.

Thank you board
A thank you board is a low-maintenance way to encourage staff members to publicly acknowledge each other’s successes. On this board, any staff member who catches another doing a good deed can note the activity on the poster board.

Appreciation days
Staff appreciation day can be as simple as buying or making party hats for staff to wear around camp during the day and then having a large cake or two baked for dessert at dinnertime. An "un-birthday" party held on a day late in the summer when no staff member has a birthday is a great way to celebrate all staff members’ accomplishments.

The outcome at these staff programs will more than outweigh their expenses. Small tokens of appreciation throughout the summer will keep your staff energized, creative, and motivated and will encourage staff-to-staff appreciation. Nothing increases good behavior faster than acknowledgment of good behavior.

Learn to set some time aside in your busy camp schedule to say "thanks" to those who are the most important ingredient in making your session run smoothly and successfully — your staff.

Chris Rollins is the camping services director of the Girl Scout Council of Greater St. Louis.


Originally published in the 1998 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.