In the Trenches: Taking Stock - Best Practices for Even Better Summers

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter

is the season when camp professionals experience their greatest differences.
While some jump right from summer camp into the so-called "shoulder season," hosting
school groups, sports teams, and weekend outings, others are wrapping
up the summer with parent/camper surveys, filling orders for pictures
from the Web, or making plans for a vacation before starting in on the
2003 season. Directors of nonprofit camps, who often switch back to their
off-season duties, quickly get caught up in the daily demands of their
sponsoring centers. Whatever your focus this September, take time to
reflect on the previous summer while it is fresh in your mind. This reflection
will provide some rich material for next summer's training and steer
you toward best practices in your year-round camp work.

Start With Inspiration

One of the aspects of camp most of us love to talk about is the way
we so often make a difference in the lives of both campers and staff.
This is echoed by staff, who consistently cite their desire to "make
a difference" in the life of a child/lives of children as the number
one factor motivating them at camp. Seldom, however, do camp professionals,
as a regular practice, document in some colorful, accurate, detailed
way those success stories of the summer to share with the staff the following
year. Wouldn't it make sense to write down some of your success stories
and breakthroughs now while you can remember the nuances and details
of your success?

Create a book of best practices

What were your success stories for summer 2002? What campers had breakthroughs,
large and small? What staff members overcame obstacles to "step up to the
plate?" Get a notebook, title it your "best practices" book, and write out
some of those tales. Send an e-mail out to staff this fall, especially to
your "best performers," asking for their stories (if you haven't had the
chance to survey them before they left at the end of the summer) or to supply
you with details to your own recollections. Remind yourself to begin your
staff orientation next summer with these human-interest narratives. Doing
so has a much greater impact on your staff at the opening of orientation
than reciting your "camp philosophy." As I tell camp professionals everywhere,
if you run your orientation well, your staff will be able to tell you what
your philosophy is at the end of orientation just from the way they have
been greeted and dealt with during staff training.

Identify New Allies

Every summer has its heroes - staff who truly rise to the top and become
incredible performers; parents of new campers who are now "true believers" because
their children got so much more from camp than they ever expected; and
campers who surprise us all and achieve more than we thought possible.
Make a list of your new and true allies, because they can help you continue
to deliver the best camp experience possible.

Partner with parents

Cultivate a relationship with parents who are especially happy with camp or
who are particularly satisfied about something special they or their children
received from you or your staff. These parents can help you identify other
families that might be interested in your camp, or they may be willing to
host small gatherings for you when you come to their neighborhood to give
a slide show/video presentation about camp to prospective families. You might
consider inviting a small, select group of parents to orientation to speak
with your staff about what they want for their children, about the kind of
care they are looking for, about any advice they have for staff about their
children, etc. Parents who feel distinctly grateful for the experience or
service they or their children received this summer are perhaps your best
candidates for your panel next summer. If you have not invited parents to
camp for orientation yet, I can only tell you that every camp director I
have spoken to who has done this has told me how powerful and inspiring these
presentations were for both the staff and the parents involved.

Identify top performing staff

As far as staff are concerned, establish an ongoing relationship with those
staff you feel are truly your best performers. The Internet makes this easier
than ever to do, and as most of us have seen, staff that do not respond to
phone messages or regular (snail) mail do respond to e-mail. Ask your top
performing staff to host a small gathering at their schools later in the
year (which you or your designated alternative attend) to help you recruit
new staff. Counselors who are truly strong performers will recommend camp
to their friends in a personal way that you simply cannot match - and they
will recommend it only to those individuals whom they think can "cut it" at
camp. According to results from a 2000 survey of twenty camps throughout
the United States, staff who were personally referred by certain other staff
(your best performers) were rated very high in terms of their own performance
during the summer.

Turn your campers into writers

In terms of campers you identify as having had an exceptional summer, have
them write a small story for your Web site about their experience. Some campers
will be thrilled to see their own piece on your Web site, and doing this
can only enhance the bond of loyalty that camper family has with you.

Best Practices

Before the summer gets too far away from you, write down the little
things that happened during orientation that seemed particularly effective.
For example, several camps bring their first-time staff in to camp anywhere
from twenty-four to thirty-six hours before returning staff. This gives
them a chance to get settled and become familiar with the place before
all the old-timers come in. It also gives your international staff a
chance to adjust to the time change, jet lag, and some of the customs.
Other camps have a "warm fuzzy" meeting with their staff early in orientation.
During the meeting, each staff member decorates a paper bag with their
name and any special design. Other staff members drop appreciative notes
or memos of congratulations in the bag during orientation. It is just
a way for staff to acknowledge the contributions of one another. What
other practices, either from orientation or from the summer itself, are
ones you want to make sure you repeat next year? What glitches and mistakes
do you want to make sure you avoid or account for next year? All of these
observations should go into your "best practices" book, which you should
also then circulate among your trusted key staff for their ideas and
recollections. Looking back at it next May, when you will once again
be "gearing up" for the coming summer, you will be glad you took the
time to gather your notes this fall.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing
in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for and can be reached via e-mail at or
by fax at 617-572-3373. "In the Trenches" is sponsored by American
Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the 2002 September/October
issue of Camping Magazine.