Stories from Camp

by Don DeGraaf, Ph.D., and Jessie Glover

"There’s a part of camp that has always been and will always be with me. I’m a different and better person because of having had that experience.”

“I think my camp experience influenced me more than any other job I’ve ever had — had more of an impact than I think any job could have had.”

“I know the kids had a good time — we laughed, we played hard, we slept hard, but we all grew. I know the campers were different, they changed, but so did we. I was certainly a different person when I left camp.”

“My years at camp are a garden from which I draw many good memories.”

While camp professionals are quick to point out that camps give kids a world of good, it is easy to forget the impact of the camp experience on seasonal staff. Yet the importance of seasonal staff cannot be overstated. Within organized camping, more than one million jobs are filled each summer by college students, teachers, health professionals, sport specialists, waterfront professionals, food service directors, and many others who wish to make a positive difference in the lives of children and youth (American Camping Association, 2002). Staff members are often deeply impacted by the camp experience — not just during or immediately following the experience — but for the rest of their lives.

As the camp profession moves forward in documenting the benefits of organized camps for participants, it is also important to understand how the camp experience impacts staff as well. The first attempt to document the outcomes of organized camping was completed by Chenery (1994), who interviewed 318 campers, staff, directors, and alumni in an effort to identify benefits to justify and explain the camp experience to decision makers. The outcomes described by respondents included: learning specific activity skills, learning about oneself, learning about group living and interpersonal skills, having fun, and gaining an appreciation of nature.

In 1998, the Association of Independent Camps completed a subsequent study focusing solely on staff and the benefits provided by organized camps. The project examined the perceived benefits associated with summer camp experiences (Bialeschki, et al., 1998). Results of this study revealed a number of positive personal and professional outcomes of the camp experience. These outcomes focused on “relationships with other staff and campers, appreciation of diversity, interpersonal skills, group cohesion, leadership and responsibilities, role modeling/mentoring, technical skills development, personal growth, administrative skills, and teamwork” (p. 27). The respondents in this study were all relatively close to the camp experience. Thus, the question remains, as staff are further distanced from the camp experience, does the perception of the camp experience change? Are individuals able to articulate specific or additional impressions as they are further distanced from the camp experience?

In an attempt to gain a richer understanding of how the camp experience impacts seasonal staff after at least five years following the camp experience, twenty-nine former camp counselors from a medium-sized, Christian camp in the Midwest were randomly selected from a pool of over 300 former staff and asked to participate in a research study during the summer of 2001.

Respondents were divided into six groups of staff who worked in camp:

  • five to ten years ago;
  • eleven to fifteen years ago;
  • sixteen to twenty-five years ago;
  • twenty-six to forty years ago; and
  • forty-one or more years ago.

Within each of these five groups, three men and three women were randomly selected to be a part of the study. A total of fifteen males and fourteen females participated in the study. Respondents represented a variety of middle- to upper-middle socioeconomic backgrounds living in California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Washington. In the course of about an hour interview, the respondents were asked a variety of questions that encouraged them to reflect on their overall camp experience as well as to identify the personal and professional impacts of their experience.

Results of the study demonstrated that a majority, twenty-eight respondents, viewed the camp experience in positive terms while all twenty-nine respondents recognized the long-term positive impact that the camp experience had on their lives. Researchers identified themes from the content analysis of transcribed interviews with the respondents, and they organized the themes around three content areas — personal impacts of the camp experience (e.g., self-confidence, responsibility, spiritual growth, environmental awareness, role models, and relationships); professional impacts of the camp experience (e.g., the development of specific work-related skills and vocations); and reflections on camp, which included themes related to why participants saw the camp experience as being special for staff.

Personal Impacts of the Camp Experience

Personal impacts of the camp experience were overwhelmingly positive in nature, with all respondents recognizing the positive benefits camp had on their personal lives. The impacts identified were varied and included such benefits as increased self-confidence, increased appreciation of nature, spiritual growth — as well as the development of specific life skills (e.g., outdoor skills). In addition, respondents also mentioned the importance of the relationships they developed as a result of the camp experience and the role models the camp experience offered for dealing with relationships and family. In examining the impacts identified by respondents, some differences existed in the benefits reported by men and women, while benefits were consistent regardless of how long ago respondents worked at camp. (See the sidebar on page 42 for comments from respondents.)

In examining the personal impacts of the camp experience, it was interesting to note the differences between men and women in the area of self-confidence and life skills. The gain in self-confidence reported by respondents was more evident in women (n=7 [The “n” represents the number of respondents who identified this benefit during the study.]) than in men (n=3). In the area of life skills, both men and women reported increased skill; however, the type of skills reported were different. For the sake of this study, life skills were defined as tangible skills and/or attitudes for living and working with others (e.g., relational skills, self-confidence, development of social skills, etc.), as well as specific skills that respondents learned at camp that were continually used after camp outside of the workplace (e.g., outdoor-related skills, parenting skills, etc.). Many men (n=8) identified the relationship-building skills (e.g., empathy and compassion) they learned at camp, while women often identified the hard, practical skills (e.g., camping skills like building a fire or setting up a tent) that came from the camp experience. Half of the women interviewed (n=7) talked in great detail and with pride about being able to identify specific skills that set them apart from others.

Perhaps the emphasis on the relational skills from male respondents and the emphasis on practical skills from female respondents are results of the androgynous nature of camp — where everyone is expected to be able to do a wide variety of tasks and assist wherever necessary. As a result, there may be less role bias in this setting. As one woman summed up the nature of skill development in a camp setting, “I think that the greatest thing about camp is that they sort of say, ‘Hey, if you’re willing to learn it, you can do it.’ So I think it’s an empowering kind of place, because you find you can do things you never thought you could.”

Overall, the personal benefits identified in this study are similar to those identified by Chenery (1994) — learning specific activity skills, learning about oneself, acquiring interpersonal skills, and gaining an appreciation of nature. The personal benefits are also similar to the benefits identified by Bialeschki, et al., (1998) — self-confidence, role models/mentors, technical skills, and interpersonal skills. The results of all three of these studies appear to indicate that staff found the experience of working at a camp to be rewarding and beneficial in a variety of personal ways.

Professional Impacts of the Camp Experience

Participants reported entering a variety of professions following their camp experience (see Table 1). Despite the variety of professions selected by former staff, over 80 percent talked specifically about the positive impact the camp experience had on their professional lives. As one respondent who now works as a career counselor summarized, “The camping experience becomes the launching point for career selection, development, career success really . . . it really is a profound springboard of possibilities.”

Camp was also instrumental in shaping career choices. For example, of the twelve respondents who became elementary, middle, or high school teachers, seven had identified education as their career goal prior to working at camp, while five changed their career goal to education as a result of their experience at camp.

Current teachers identified a variety of benefits of working at camp in preparing them for teaching. Specific benefits included “time fillers” such as mealtime songs and stories, experience gained with campers with special needs, an ability to recognize teachable moments, increased trust in one’s self and one’s own instincts, and an ability to have a healthy perspective on the day-to-day aspects of working with children. One teacher stated it this way, “[Camp] just put me in the right frame of mind, in relating to the kids. Sometimes when you’re a teacher, you’re very conscious of needing to cover material and conscious of expectations of other teachers. And camp helps you to see children as they really are, I think — fun loving, but they can be stubborn or difficult — I think you can learn to love them as people. I think camp just opens that opportunity up in a different way than the classroom does.”

The connection made by this respondent between school and camp is noteworthy. It acknowledges the educational nature of the camp experience but also highlights the uniqueness of camp. This realization reinforces the finding of Chenery (1994) that camps are not like schools or home because of the following seven differences:

  • parents aren’t there;
  • no television;
  • different activities;
  • learning is different in camp;
  • different relationships with peers and adults;
  • different environment; and
  • the freedom to be a different person at camp.

The emphasis placed by respondents on the tangible and intangible work-related skills learned at camp (see Sidebar) relates positively to the professional benefits (teamwork, leadership and responsibility, technical skill development, and administrative skills) identified by Bialeschki, et al., (1998). For example, the theme of leadership and responsibility was integrated throughout the interviews in this study with respondents talking about the sense of responsibility that developed in leading campers.

Reflections on the Camp Experience

Throughout the course of the data collection phase, respondents continued to return to the theme of what made the camp experience such a positive experience for staff. In examining this theme further, three distinct threads emerged from the collective interviews. These threads included the separateness or uniqueness of camp, the ability to share in making memories for kids, and the experience of freedom. (See Sidebar for comments.)

Uniqueness of camp
The first thread identified by respondents examined how the physical nature of camp served as its own distinct world — separate and unique from the outside world. Respondents referred specifically to the departure from the day-to-day routine of life and the ability to engage in activities different from those found in the “normal world.” Camp also gives counselors and campers the opportunity to create the kind of place where they want to be.

This thread is consistent with earlier writing on the uniqueness of camp. Dustin (1989) writes that camp is unique because it brings the world to a scale that we can understand. Within a camp setting campers (and staff) are given the opportunity to see the consequences of their actions and to learn that they can make a difference. They have the opportunity “to taste the possibility of the human family . . . to sense their connectedness to other living things . . . to have a glimpse of what can be, to come home eager and enthusiastic, ready to take on the world” (Dustin, 1989, p. 34).

Lasting memories
The second thread dealt with the ability to share in making lasting memories for campers as well as the opportunity to come along side children at a significant point in their lives. This can be seen as an extension of the first grouping, in that the uniqueness of place and experience creates the environment for memory-creation. This thread translates to having time to hang out with each other — adults and campers sharing in the experiences of camp. This relates to what Chenery (1994) identifies as “having time” — which she credits to being a major component to the success of the camp experience. “Time translates to more attention to the individual . . . unpressured time is a major facilitator of the process of change through camp” (p. 23).

Experience of freedom
The final thread dealt with the individual freedom that respondents felt as a camp staff member. This type of freedom included being free to experiment with whom they were as people as well as the freedom to live simply.

Lessons Learned

The results of this study indicated that as respondents distanced themselves from working at camp they continued to remember the experience in a positive light and recognize the positive impact that their camp experience had in both their personal and professional lives. This was evident throughout the interviews and came through specifically when respondents were asked what advice they would give potential camp staff. As one respondent stated, “Camp is a growing experience and is valuable for anyone who can commit themselves to a summer of hard work and fun wrapped together.”

The qualitative nature of this study limits our ability to generalize the results to all camps or individuals. The findings, however, provide insights into the depth and breadth of the camp experience, as well as demonstrate the power of stories to document the long-term benefits of the camp experience. Each of the respondents started their interview with a story. These stories were funny, moving, and proved to be a powerful medium to strengthen the emotional bond between the respondent and her/his experience at camp. For many, the day-to-day memories of camp slip away, but it is the stories that remain and define the camp experience for respondents, as well as help former staff to understand their camp experience and codify the learning that takes place throughout the summer. As a result, we need to document and keep the stories of our programs for the benefit of staff as well as to interpret the camp experience to others, thus benefiting the organization. Staff stories can be obtained in a variety of different ways including conducting exit interviews, staff journals, staff reunions, and formal research studies.

In addition to the importance of stories, respondents identified the issue of long-term and short-term transitions as a critical aspect of camp that camp directors need to manage. Due to the uniqueness of camp, directors need to pay particular attention to helping staff make the transition to and from camp. Bialeschki, et al., (1998) reiterates the importance of staff training to prepare staff for their summer experience; likewise, it is important to help staff make the transition from camp to what follows. As one respondent in this study noted, “I found myself when I would leave camp feeling that all of a sudden that support [I’d experienced over the summer] wasn’t there, and am I going to keep going without it?” Assisting in this transition can be accomplished by creating time for closure, creating support systems that may extend beyond camp, as well as maintaining contact through the fall months with cards, quotes, or activities.

Beyond managing the transition to and from camp during the summer, camp directors need to recognize life transitions and make them a part of the camp experience. This entails creating a lifetime relationship with campers, which means nurturing them into potential staff and long-term advocates of your program. Respondents in this study had a strong connection with this organization as over half of the former staff members interviewed had been campers at this camp. This relationship did not end with being staff members; of the sixteen respondents who mentioned having kids or grandkids, twelve sent their children/grandchildren to this camp while others spoke of becoming long-term advocates of the program. “I definitely am an advocate for camp . . . it’s a place that just continues to grow in my heart and for the work they are doing there. And I think that now that I am not there I see it in a different perspective, and I have to be part of it in a different way [such as through my prayers, financial support, and keeping in contact].” Camp programs need to invest their resources into maintaining the connection between former campers and staff in ways such as newsletters, reunions, and special events.

Camps give staff a world of good. As camp professionals we know this intuitively, but we have not done a good job of documenting this positive impact. Staff stories represent a wonderful untapped resource to demonstrate these benefits. If a complete picture of the outcomes of camp is to be developed, camp professionals must also understand the experience of everyone, not just participants. It is only through understanding the outcomes of our programs and how these outcomes occur that we can replicate these positive outcomes (or benefits) in the future and truly provide a world of good for kids (and staff) through organized camps.

Table 1
Professions of Former Camp Staff
Profession
Number
Percentage
Teacher (elementary or secondary)
12
41.4
Chemistry Professor
2
6.9
Doctor
2
6.9
Pastor
2
6.9
Social Worker
2
6.9
Business (sales, marketing, etc.)
2
6.9
Therapist
1
3.4
Mechanical Engineer
1
3.4
Computer Programmer
1
3.4
Journalist
1
3.4
Lawyer
1
3.4
Unknown
2
6.9
Total
29
100

References
ACA – Staff. (2002). About ACA. Available at www.ACAcamps.org/aboutaca.htm.
 
Bialeschki, D., Henderson, K., & Dahowski, K. (1998, July/August). Camp gives staff a world of good. Camping Magazine. 71 (5): 27-31.
 
Chenery, M.F. (1994, May/June). Explaining the value of camp. Camping Magazine, 66 (4): 20-25.
 
Dustin, D. (1989). Magical outcomes of organized camping: The total camp environment. Camping Magazine, 61 (9): 31-35.

Don DeGraaf, Ph.D., is a professor of recreation at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For questions about this article, contact him at ddegraaf@calvin.edu.

Jessie Glover is a student at Calvin College, majoring in communications. The authors wish to thank the McGregor’s Fellowship Program at Calvin College for the funds that made this study possible.

 

Originally published in the 2002 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.

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