Happy but Sad: Outcomes at Morry's Camp

by M. Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D., Teresa Younger, Karla Henderson, Ph.D., Dawn Ewing, and Mary Casey II

Happy and sad are two contrasting emotions, yet they often coexist within any occasion in our lives. When campers at Morry's Camp were asked on a questionnaire at the end of the camping session to complete the sentence, "When camp ended, I felt . . ." a number of the campers responded with those two emotions. Several campers described concurrently the ideas of happy and sad, or sad but happy, or happy but sad. One young person said "good, but terrible." These responses lead us to ask questions about what happened at this camp that elicited those emotions.

As part of our ongoing efforts to examine and document the outcomes of young people's involvement at Morry's Camp, we have gathered information in a variety of formats over the past two years. We think it is important to enrich children's lives, and the messages we get from them and their parents or guardians give us indicators of how well we are doing. This article shares some of the ways we have gathered information.

Campers and camp professionals have described the values of camping for many years. Limited empirical literature exists, however, that documents these values and outcomes. A recent meta-analysis by Marsh (1999) provided a basis for examining aspects of camping outcomes. He found that camp had a positive influence on self in relatively short periods of time across all age groups, but particularly among younger campers. The other significant conclusion from Marsh's analyses was that camps that focused on enhancing self-constructs were more likely to affect them. Therefore, intentionality and deliberate programming done in camps often resulted in positive youth development.

Outcomes refer to the benefits or changes that occur for individuals or populations during or after participating in program activities. Outcomes may relate to behavior, skills, knowledge, attitudes, values, conditions, or other attributes. Camp professionals are interested in how these outcomes can be conceptualized, addressed during staff training, and implemented through camp programs so that these desirable benefits are not just left to chance.

Morry's Camp

Morry's Camp is unique in a number of ways. Morry Stein, former leader of the camping movement, had a dream of establishing a camp where children who might not otherwise get a chance to attend camp could come for several weeks in the summer. After his death, this camp started with children from New York City and surrounding communities who faced challenging life situations. The children are referred for consideration and are eligible when they are entering fifth grade. They must maintain appropriate performance in school, stay out of trouble, and have parental support for being involved with Morry's Camp. If they meet these criteria, the children attend camp for four weeks during the summer at no cost to the family. If they continue to meet these expectations during the school year, they are eligible to return to camp for up to four years.

The camp is based on a philosophy of self-empowerment, respect, cooperative living, and fun. The specific goals of the camp focus on building positive core values, increasing social skills, enhancing self-esteem, and building a sense of personal responsibility. Staff are trained in the camp philosophy, understand the camp objectives, and plan programs that result in the desired outcomes.

Morry's Camp is like many other summer youth camps. The children are in a natural outdoor setting, go swimming and boating, do nature activities, and have special evening campfire programs. The camp program, however, also includes aspects of school curricula. For example, grade appropriate learning objectives, particularly reading outcomes, are addressed in the camp program.

A unique aspect of this camp is the year-round focus of the camp program. Staff meet with the campers in their neighborhoods throughout the school year. These meetings provide ongoing contact with the children and their families in ways that continue to reinforce the outcomes achieved during the summer. The trust and bonds established during the summer are maintained and valued to such an extent that over the six years of the camp's operation, the camp has over 80 percent of the campers meeting the camp requirements so they can return the next summer.

Sources of Data

Evaluation studies of any camp program are site and program specific. To the extent that another camp conducts its programs in similar ways, data cannot necessarily be generalized from one camp to another. These findings, however, may assist other camps in planning programs that can make a difference in young people's lives.

At Morry's Camp, campers are involved in ongoing formative evaluation activities where they describe various aspects of camp in addition to evaluating their overall experience at the end of the season. Some of these evaluations use the campers' own words and comments to open-ended questions or statements (i.e., qualitative data); other data are gathered from numeric scales and statistical information (i.e., quantitative data). For analysis purposes, we examined the end of the session quantitative and qualitative evaluations as well as some of the "journal entries" that the campers handed in during the session.

Information from campers
Campers were provided a rating system for describing their experiences at camp related to the various activities that were offered. In addition, they provided responses to open-ended questions. The ratings were tallied and the open-ended answers were coded for enumeration and then referenced with exemplary quotes. This article will primarily examine the open-ended questions since these responses were similar to the quantitative scale but "richer" in their scope and details.

One of the questions asked the campers to describe how camp changed them. Almost 25 percent of the campers mentioned they were more active because of camp. One ten-year-old said, "It encouraged me to exercise (by running) more." Other responses included such comments as, "It stopped me from being idle," and "It made [me] stop watching a lot of television."

Additional statements captured the wide range in perspectives of how the children thought camp had changed them. For example, a tally of the responses indicated that almost 20 percent mentioned feeling more independent, mature, and responsible. Approximately 18 percent indicated developing better attitudes, manners, and patience. Another 12 percent mentioned improved friendship skills and being more out-going.

Examples of these perceived changes as stated in the voices of the children included this statement by a nine-year-old who said, "It changed my manners" and "I think it taught me how to be patient." One camper said, "It gave me a chance to get away from the city and taught me to be away from my dad." Another camper said, "It made me better by giving me better friendship skills." An eleven-year-old indicated, "I am more into nature."

Campers said they liked camp activities best (40 percent), which included swimming, sports, field activities, and meal times. Campers said they liked the people and the staff (21 percent) second best. As one child said, "I liked the counselors who understand me."

Since Morry's Camp is designed as a long-term commitment to camp, one of the evaluation questions related to what the campers looked forward to for the next year. The "people" was the most common response and included comments such as "seeing my old counselors, directors, and friends" and "meeting my new counselors." Physical activities were mentioned second with specific comments related to swimming better or passing the swimming test.

One question specifically asked campers to describe what makes a good counselor. The majority of the comments dealt with the personality of the counselor as detailed in the following comments: "understanding children," "always being there for us," "a counselor that listens to you and don't yell," "you have to be a good person and act like a kid," "have a lot of fun," "being good to us, helping us with stuff," and "cheer us up when we are down." Clearly, understanding, listening, and being available were important ways to interact and to make the camp a positive experience from these children's viewpoint.

The campers were also asked, "What makes you excited about camp?" A number of the campers said, "Everything." More specifically the social relationships were important as illustrated by comments such as "all the friends I'm going to make" and "getting new friends." One ten-year-old camper summed it up by saying, "Camp is fun and we do a lot of awesome things."

Campers responded to a question that asked what they had learned about themselves because of camp. Many of their comments related to personal issues that were important to them. For example, an eleven-year-old girl said that she learned that she could be a "great leader." Another girl responded that she learned, "I could do anything if I believe in myself." One young camper said she realized that "when people push me to do my best, I achieve higher." One boy said he discovered "that I'm not really as bad of a kid as I thought I was."

When the campers were asked what they would remember most about camp, not surprisingly, friends and counselors were most often mentioned (40 percent). This response was followed by all camp activities, physical activities, nature, and laughing and having fun.

Campers also replied to the open-ended statement regarding "when camp ended I felt . . ." As indicated earlier, variations of happy and sad were described. A ten-year-old girl said: "Sad and happy because I felt sad 'cause I left all my best friends and best counselors, and I felt happy 'cause now I could see my family again." A girl who was graduating said she felt, "Sad and with no power because when I go home I don't play and I do nothing . . ."

Information from parents
Parents were also asked to provide written feedback in the form of answers to open-ended questions several months after camp was over. One of the first questions asked pertained to how the parent thought the child had been affected by involvement at Morry's Camp. Parents noted that their children had become more independent and, concomitantly, more mature and responsible. One parent stated: "She became more open and not as shy." Another parent said, "I believe that [girl's name] has found out about herself that she never knew she had in her. More independent. Stronger confidence."

A parent noted another change. "I found upon [son's name] arrival home that he has not only matured, he lost a significant amount of weight. His whole outlook was spectacular. I found him to be accustomed to being alone, not so dependent upon his dad or me."

Two other changes seen in their children related to improved interpersonal skills and a more caring attitude. For example, parents said, "His social skills are continually improving," and "Her attitude is better. She has learned to work in group settings." Another parent stated: "She has become more caring for others through her experiences."

Morry's Camp is structured to help young people address particular developmental goals. Parents were asked how some of those goals seemed evident as a result of the child's participation in the camp experience. Parents remarked that camp provided a good place for a child to develop discipline, organization, and social skills. One parent commented, "I think she learned to be social with other people and share ideas with others." As articulated by another parent, "Morry's Camp has given my daughter a chance to see life from a clearer view. It has helped her to see that her goals are important." Another parent said, "We look at your program as the absolute best . . . we feel that interaction with people of all different backgrounds, races, and religions will build strong character."

When asked if they had anything else they would like to share, several testimonials illustrated the importance the parents placed on this experience for their children. "I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving my daughter the best experience of her childhood life," and "She has met a lot of different people and made a lot of friends. I hope she can continue . . . and instill in others what you all have instilled in her."

One parent brought up a poignant viewpoint that illustrates the far-reaching possibilities and implications beyond the child for the camp experience. "This program has not only helped my daughter, but it has also helped me in a great way. I learned how to let go of my child and be thankful that she was in a safe and fun environment. Thank you for your excellent job performance and patience. Maybe next year I'll take a vacation."

Structured writing from campers
During the course of the camping sessions, campers did structured writing exercises in the form of journaling. One of the pages they turned in to their counselor asked them to complete the following statement: "The difference between camp and home is . . ." We analyzed their responses to discern the benefits and drawbacks of camp as perceived by these young people. The responses could be grouped into several themes including environment, social relationships, independence and discipline, and activities. Each of these aspects is discussed briefly in the following section.

Environment

Several campers mentioned the differences between the physical environment of camp and home. One girl said, "At camp it's peaceful and quiet compared to the city." Another ten-year-old girl noted, "There's no bugs inside of my house that make a sound [like the bugs in the tent]." Similarly, another noted, "[At home] there are hardly any bugs or daddy long legs, instead there are roaches."

An additional response from one girl was, "The difference between camp and home is that at home we have an air conditioner and we have a television. Here in camp we don't, but we have Olympics, clubs, and lots more. At home, we have schools, buildings, and parks. Meanwhile in camp we are in the wilderness."

Other differences related to space and safety. A nine-year-old boy liked the open space at camp. He wrote, "We have so much room in a field to play soccer. [At home] we never had enough room to play capture the flag. We have so much space to play everything." Safety issues were raised by an eleven-year-old girl. She said, "There is less danger [at camp]. You don't have to be scared to walk around without somebody trying to mess with you or try to hurt you."

Social

Several campers mentioned the different relationships that they had with others at camp compared to at home. The differences between home and camp often related to the absence of family, but highlighted the support of other caring adults. For example, one girl said, "At home I have my mother and at camp I don't, but I have my counselors to substitute for her." A thirteen-year-old boy indicated that at camp, "we are not pampered by our parents and all of the modern technology."

Meeting new people was a difference between home and camp for some people. One thirteen-year-old camper noted that camp has "people from all over the world - Bridgeport, Manhattan, Bronx, Queens, and Yonkers." Another fourteen-year-old boy noted that at camp, "You're away from the troubles of the city." Another male camper noted that camp had "no racism of any kind."

Independence

The problems that camp raised for some young people were brought out in this question about differences between home and camp. Sometimes the differences were not positive in the eyes of the young person, but the differences also pointed to the possible values of camping. Several campers expressed a similar opinion to this thirteen-year-old girl - "I'm usually not up at breakfast [at home]. Also, at home I can get to sleep late. At camp, I meet new people. Both camp and home have ups and downs, but I like both."

Similarly a ten-year-old girl wrote, "The best thing is you should like camp and home. It's fun being at home sometimes and it's also good to be out for a little while at a good and fun place like camp."

The structure of camp was not always perceived positively. A thirteen-year-old girl noted, "[At camp] you are always on a schedule and if you miss a meal, then you go hungry. You have to do what you are told, right when you are told to do it. At home, I have a little leeway." Similarly, a thirteen-year-old boy said, "At camp we have more boundaries on where to go, and where not to go." However, an opposite view emerged when several campers suggested that home was more restrictive. One thirteen-year-old girl said, "At home there are more regulations."

Activities

Several different campers mentioned the variety of opportunities that existed at camp compared to what they might be doing at home in the summer. One girl said, "Camp is more fun than at home because there is more stuff to do." Another girl said, " . . .You never get bored [at camp]. At home I get bored all the time and there is nothing to do." A boy listed the differences by putting "activities" under the heading of camp and "free time" under the heading of home. Another boy said, "At camp you don't need TV. At camp I have all the things that I need."

A twelve-year-old boy said, "Home is just always the same thing. At camp you get to try new things and meet new friends . . . it's a new experience and it's challenging . . " One girl wrote, ". . . in camp you learn how to survive in nature and get to do crazy exciting neat stuff. While in the city there is light everywhere and there are always buildings and almost no trees." Similarly, an eleven-year-old girl noted, "[at home] I would rather sleep all day instead of go out. At camp, I like getting up."

The contradictions between how life is organized when comparing home to camp was evident in what an eleven-year-old girl recorded, "I get to be myself at camp but at home I get to go to bed when I want to. But, if I had to choose between camp and home, I would pick camp."

Desired Outcomes

This evaluative research only examined one camp with a focused program. The results, however, point to some of the important outcomes that might be experienced through camping and also offer some suggestions that other camps might consider.

Three main conclusions resulted from this exploratory study.

  • Campers and parents were aware of the direct positive psychological, social, and physical benefits of the camping experience. Regardless of whether the comments were from a fifth grader or a parent, they all articulated many of the values traditionally associated with going to camp. The activities that required physical skills in a natural setting resulted in enhanced environmental awareness and feelings of physical competence. The social interactions from daily living in a shared community resulted in a recognized growth in respect, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. The combined effect was one of self-empowerment and personal growth that reached into all aspects of the child's life well beyond the confines of the camp environment.
     
  • Goals are important to the achievement of desired outcomes. If articulated goals and objectives reflect the mission and vision of the camp and then are used as the basis for staff training and program design and implementation, then these desired results are much more likely to occur. While some of these positive outcomes articulated by the children and their parents may have occurred serendipitously in any camp, their likeliness was increased in this camp because of the planned way in which they were targeted and addressed by the camp staff.
     
  • Camp benefits not only the child, but also the parent(s), and ultimately, the community to which that child returns. The benefits found in this study to the campers were not surprising. However, the articulation of the benefit to the parents was not anticipated. A recognition of the powerful relationship that exists between parents who entrust their children to the camp staff and their own growth as a parent coming to terms with the maturation of their child is worthy of further consideration and study. One can also suggest that children who return to their communities after a positive camp experience will add to the potential social capital of that community. Children from camp communities that have stressed responsibility, respect, caring, leadership, and good citizenship may return to their home communities and put these attitudes into action in their home, school, and community.

This project was a first step to examine the outcomes of a camp that plans and implements programs for desired benefits. While a few aspects about the experience have been addressed, many others are still waiting to be considered. The camp experience is as varied as the campers and the camp they attend, and yet, the complexities must be addressed if the camping profession is to continue to show that camp, indeed, "gives kids a world of good."

References
Marsh, P. (1999). Does camp enhance self-esteem? Camping Magazine, 72(6), 36-40.

Deb Bialeschki is a professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC-CH). Karla Henderson is the chair of the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at UNC-CH. Mary Casey II is a graduate student at UNC-CH, completing a master's degree in recreation administration. Teresa Younger is the executive director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union and the former executive director of Morry's Camp. Dawn Ewing is the executive director of Morry's Camp and is a member of the Board of Directors for the ACA New York Section.

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

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