Planting Seeds with Your Staff — Growing Your Camp's Culture

by Jeff Jacobs

As a camp director, I often do not have the opportunity to be on the front lines — with campers in cabins or consistently leading program activities. Even though I attempt to stay in touch with campers and staff as much as possible, the administrative and leadership duties and responsibilities of being the director occupy the bulk of my time. This often takes me away from the daily rhythm of camp — regardless of how early I wake up or how many "rest periods" I skip in an attempt to get my office tasks done during the campers’ down time. However, as a camp director I have the amazing opportunity to influence each person at camp — campers and staff — through my efforts to shape and direct our camp culture. The shaping of our camp culture is one of my biggest and most exciting challenges and responsibilities.

Camp Culture

Camp culture includes the pace, tone, sense of community, common vision, mission, priorities, energy level, aura, and special feel of a camp. Many camps share some common values and beliefs, such as fostering an appreciation for the outdoors and providing opportunities for new experiences. Yet, each camp is unique and can make intentional decisions regarding its camp culture. Regardless of the length of a summer camp program, each summer camp experience can only accomplish certain goals and emphasize a limited set of priorities. Shaping a camp's culture is the opportunity to determine what goals, objectives, and priorities will rise to the top of the list and will be emphasized from the moment someone enters through the front gate. The camp's culture needs to be established in a way that maximizes the opportunities to fulfill the camp's highest priority goals and objectives.

Shaping the Culture

Establishing tone and atmosphere
It's early October and the last of the summer camp equipment has finally been put away. As I start to settle into the fall routine, I realize that there is a message on my desk from someone already requesting an application for next summer. I rattle the old filing cabinet open and dust off a copy of the previous year's staff information and application materials. Images of summer staff pulling through the front gate for another amazing summer start to fill my head, and I begin what I feel is my most important responsibility — shaping our camp culture.

As I begin to compose the letter that will serve as the cover page for our staff application, I am mindful that this is likely to be the first thing that a perspective staff member will see and read about our camp. Within this one 8½- by 11-inch piece of paper, I will attempt to establish a tone and atmosphere that will lay the groundwork for our upcoming summer. I must select from our sixty-five year history and two hundred plus acres what I want to share with applicants. With clear priorities in mind, I am able to fashion a letter that provides a glimpse of what this coming summer will bring.

Fine tuning the application
Tackling the review of the application itself is my next step. Each year, I fine-tune this important document to help maximize not only my opportunity to get to know and evaluate applicants, but also to assist applicants in getting a feel for our camp and to establish aspects of our camp culture. Questions are designed to gather basic information and to connect with staff training topics, such as "What is your favorite memory?" and "What lesson(s) would you like to pass on to children?" These questions set the stage for discussions at staff training regarding our unique opportunity to create lasting memories and to pass along important and meaningful lessons to children.

In the past few years, I have added a "short answer" section to our application. This part of the application has provided even more opportunities for our camp culture to shine through. Questions center on scenarios, providing a window into our camp life and allowing applicants to discuss in more depth their perspectives on team building, conflict resolution, motivation, responsibility, encouragement, nurturing, priorities, and creativity. These questions draw applicants into a slice of a "day at camp" and allow for a mental "test drive" of being a camp staff member.

Interview opportunities
The interview provides the next opportunity to reveal even more to applicants about the ideal camp culture. During an interview, some time is usually spent sharing a typical day at camp — highlighting the aspects and components that distinguish our unique camp culture. My pace slows as I talk about not only what we do, but more importantly, why we do it. Applicants can begin to understand the amount of planning, thought, and preparation that goes into designing an ideal camp experience. Time shared during an interview gives me the chance to establish my expectations of staff members, as well as clarify what staff members can expect from me. Throughout the entire interview, my passion for camp simmers very close to the surface and on several occasions erupts as I get a gleam in my eye talking about the magic of camp.

Welcome packet
The welcome packet sent to all staff members in the spring provides yet another excellent opportunity to focus the staff on some of the major aspects of our camp community. The tone of this packet fosters a sense of enthusiasm and excitement that spills over into the first day of staff training. Included in the packet is a list of staff members and their favorite quotes (obtained from an application question). A brief outline of the staff training week, purposely omitting a great deal of detail, helps build anticipation and a sense of wonder. The packing list, actually written more like a story than a listing, provides some insight into the fun-filled activities and programs that will fill our summer. Throughout the packet, staff are thanked and acknowledged for committing to this incredible endeavor — setting the tone for continued staff appreciation.

Staff training

Arrival day
The first day of staff training arrives — the most critical day of the entire summer. I spend more time preparing for this day than all the other days of staff training combined. From the moment that staff drive through the front gate, I treat them in a way that clearly and emphatically role models our camp culture. I sit, although sometimes stand because I am so excited, at a welcome table at the entrance to our camp. I want staff to feel welcome and appreciated from the moment they get out of their cars.

Staff members know in advance that it is important to arrive on time, since we start our first staff training component as soon as possible. Staff are given a few minutes to set their things down and find a pair of comfortable shoes. Then we head to an open playing field. I ring the bell, and we all gather on the field — standing in a circle, everyone with a front-row view. I officially welcome the summer staff and try to find the words to express how excited I am to be working with everyone this summer. I explain that we will begin with some community building activities. I do not hide my strong feelings that a healthy, fun-loving, supportive, and nurturing staff community is the key to a great summer. We spend about an hour on the field playing, sharing, laughing, and establishing some of the core elements of our camp culture.

After this hour session, we take a quick break and then gather to set a foundation for our summer during another hour-long session. This session focuses on the campers. I always make a point of saying, "Without campers, there would be no camp." Our campers need to be welcomed and appreciated, just as I have tried to welcome and appreciate our staff. Each camper needs to be valued. My hope is that during the months leading up to camp, I have already demonstrated in my treatment of staff how we will be treating and greeting campers.

After our first dinner together, we take a hayride and tour camp. This provides an opportunity to not only tour the facility, but also adds to our list of shared experiences that help foster a sense of community. Before the day ends, we gather together and I put the staff to bed the same way that I hope that counselors will put campers to bed once they have arrived. I tell a story and share a little bit about myself. I set some goals for the week and plant the seeds of excitement for what is to come. I also want to make sure everyone is comfortable, both physically and emotionally, before nodding off to sleep on this first night. I ask staff to jot down how they are doing and what their reactions are to the first half day we've spent together. These writings allow me to check in with all staff members and to begin to establish helping and nurturing relationships.

Day one
At the pre-breakfast staff meeting, I match staff in pairs of staff training buddies, because I don't want any staff member to feel as though they are going it alone. I attempt to engineer for success by strategically placing staff members together — with attention to experience, personalities, and staff dynamics. These buddy partnerships provide opportunities for staff to check-in with someone else and to share and reflect with a partner. By placing staff with a buddy at the beginning of the week, I am again demonstrating a strategy that staff can utilize at the beginning of the week with campers.

It is the first morning of staff training, and staff members have yet to receive a staff manual. Staff manuals and camp policies and procedures are important, but on this morning I have decided to leave manuals aside and have assembled the staff on the team-building course, hoping to continue building our supportive staff community. My sequencing of events during the staff training week speaks to my priorities and areas of emphasis. After a morning of team building, we eat a quick lunch and start packing our bags for our staff trip. We load up in fifteen passenger vans with our buddies and head out for either a backpacking or canoeing trip. This shared adventure continues to add to our sense of community, while teaching important skills and procedures for off-site tripping.

During the evening campfire, we reflect on the great day and share stories about our adventure. I direct the discussion to consider what made today a great day. Ideas are generated, and I encourage staff members to consider how these same aspects and attributes that contributed to our great day can be replicated with campers. We begin to discuss strategies that provide campers with opportunities to work together, learn new skills, explore, feel a sense of accomplishment, overcome obstacles, and have spontaneous fun. The campfire wraps up with campfire stories, legends, and tales of our camp's folklore.

The week
The balance of the staff training week includes skill practice, safety management, policies, procedures, logistics, and schedules. However, each program and area of camp is introduced experientially, with all staff members going for a horseback ride and up into the high ropes course. Effort is made to allow staff members to experience camp as our campers will experience it. This strategy produces staff who can more easily identify with some of the issues and obstacles campers face. Staff are often heard saying to campers, "Yeah, I know. I didn't really want to take my swim test either, but I needed to if I wanted to use the waterfront." Campers are pleasantly surprised to learn that staff members had to endure some of the same hardships that campers face.

Throughout the staff training week, I shine the spotlight on some amazing characteristics found among our staff that I would like to see incorporated into our ideal camp culture. I provide situations where staff members can view Chris's incredible ability to encourage others or Emily's commitment to respecting our environment. I attempt to showcase and acknowledge the amount of time Sarah and Tom take to go out of their way to help others. Time is set aside to recognize Michelle's passion and love of camp and Aaron's amazing ability to listen and be patient and caring. Amy's compassion and Paul's work ethic is pointed out and admired. Every staff member contributes to the camp culture through the incredible talents and abilities they bring to camp. The summer season provides additional opportunities, during structured staff meetings, to direct everyone's attention on each individual staff member, highlighting the fact that each one brings something valuable and special.

The results
By the end of the staff training week, it is important that staff not only know what to do when our first campers arrive, but that they know how to do it. The camp culture that is established during staff training guides staff members as they interact with campers and fellow staff members throughout the summer. Counselors remember that we did not keep score during our staff game of ultimate Frisbee. The ropes course director, while working with a cabin group, doesn't forget that during our staff debriefing sessions we implemented strategies to make sure we heard from every member of our group. The tripping director remembers that she first learned how to use a camp stove on a staff trip when someone who knew, sat back and allowed her to safely experiment and practice until she was successful. The nature director recalls being in awe while viewing her first sunset over the lake and strives to provide opportunities for nature to whisper in campers' ears.

Planting the Seed

Letters, applications, interviews, welcome packets, and especially staff training set the tone and establish the core of the camp culture. Most of what occurs with campers throughout the summer has been established before they even start packing their bags. I will always remember when I pulled my broken down car into the camp parking lot fourteen years ago, reporting for my first summer as a camp counselor. Within minutes, I was greeted by one of my favorite counselors, now the assistant director, and he said, "Great to see you, I'm really glad you are here!" He planted a seed that let me know that I was valued and appreciated. From the day the first request for an application comes in to the last day of summer camp, I am constantly attempting to plant seeds in staff members and campers that promote and support the ideal camp culture for our camp.

  • Camp Henry, located in Newaygo, Michigan, is a co-educational residential camp serving over 1,600 campers from ages seven to seventeen each summer. It was established in 1937 and is owned by Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In addition to a traditional camping program, Camp Henry also offers specialized programs in horseback riding, waterskiing, rock climbing, teen challenge, and offsite adventures.

Jeff Jacobs is an instructor and Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota and has been the summer camp director for Camp Henry since 1997. Before becoming the camp's director, Jacobs served as a counselor at Camp Henry for five summers while an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan and also attended Camp Henry as a camper for five years. Additionally, Jacobs has had five years experience serving as camp director at three other camps.

Originally published in the 2002 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.