Creating Community Across Camp Programs

by Anthony R. Cardno

Each summer, Fairview Lake YMCA simultaneously hosts three different camp programs: a traditional residential camp, an adventure-based camp, and a day camp. Although Fairview has 600 beautiful acres, all three camps operate around a central area of approximately 100 acres. To some, this may seem like a logistical nightmare. The camp does experience some headaches in scheduling, staffing, and program area availability, as well as "common areas" such as the camp store and office, but the three camps usually run seamlessly. Shared training, a willingness to make campers aware of each other, and cross-promotion are just a few examples of what makes the Fairview Lake community work.

Shared Staff Training Builds Familiarity

The traditional residential program and Environmental Trips for Challenge (ETC) program share a staff training period, as well as returning staff members who have worked in both programs. The two staff groups spend the early part of the week getting acquainted (or reacquainted) through team-building activities, low-ropes courses, and the usual staff-training workshops and role plays. Later in the week, the ETC staff heads out for training sessions on the Appalachian Trail and Delaware River; the residential program’s day and overnight tripping staff members join the ETC staff, which further develops the bonds and familiarity. The ETC staff know that when they return to camp with stories to tell, several residential staff members will know exactly what they are talking about.

Shared living facilities bring staff together
During training, the majority of both staff groups stay in cabin units on the rustic side of the property, where both ETC and Blue Mountain Day Camp will be based throughout the summer. (Blue Mountain is actually a part of the Sussex County YMCA, but utilizes Fairview’s facilities.) This gives the residential staff time to bond around campfires without the distractions of electronic appliances and phones ringing, something the ETC staff continues to do all summer long. The director of Blue Mountain Day Camp (a former program director and unit leader of the residential program) and her staff join the other two camps’ staff members whenever possible during that training period.

Hike to the ridge increases bond
One facet of staff training that helps everyone to realize that all three programs are part of one camp community is the hike to the ridge. The Appalachian Trail runs directly above Fairview Lake, and just off the trail is a beautiful, smooth rock overlook from which you can see the entire Fairview property and surroundings. The program directors make the point that from a distance of 600 feet, there are no boundaries separating the residential camp from ETC from Blue Mountain Day Camp and that there should be no boundaries among staff, either. As the sun is setting and Fairview Lake is looking its most beautiful, the staff members present usually agree with the directors.

Because the staff training sessions take place at the same time and in reasonably close quarters, the relationships developed last throughout the summer and into subsequent years. Staff members from all three programs greet each other cheerily whenever they cross paths, request matching days off, and keep in touch over the off-season. The bond they share influences campers and counselors-in-training (CITs).

CIT Program Extends Connection

For the first time this summer, the Environmental Trips for Challenge camp developed a CIT program of its own. The program was designed to connect with and build bonds with the residential CIT program, while still retaining its own autonomy and purpose. The first step in getting the programs to interrelate was to gather all potential CITs at the annual winter reunion. By placing ETC and residential campers in the same cabins, the future CITs could meet and get acquainted without the pressure and expectations that the first few days of CIT training often provide. The CITs also had the opportunity to witness the counselors from both programs (as well as Blue Mountain) intermingle on a purely social level. They were able to witness the friendships that underlie the professional relationships.

Training schedules for both programs are designed to dovetail and accommodate the differences as well as the commonalities. ETC CITs are able to take part in a role play involving traditional camp program areas; the residential CITs join the ETC group for an overnight canoeing trip. The two groups also come together on joint projects providing service to the physical aspects of camp, for instance, rebuilding a long-out-of-use fire ring and clearing a safe, new, natural-step path from one cabin unit to another.

Of course, the CITs go their separate ways when the time comes to move into their respective programs. The residential CITs will move to a cabin and attend program areas; the ETC CITs remain on the rustic side of camp and join a trip. But the bond remains, and their connections influence their campers.

Interactions Benefit Campers

Campers are more likely to try to make friends across programs when they see the behavior modeled by counselors and CITs in common areas, such as the waterfront, dining hall, and evening activities. Many Fairview campers have crossed programs because of someone they befriended during lunch or on a day-hike. All three programs share the camp store and intermingle while eating ice cream, putting on sunscreen, and watching their counselors laugh together.

Blue Mountain Day Camp and ETC share the rustic side of the facility. Blue Mountain uses the rustic side lodge, old dining hall, and activity fields, and the day campers love to question ETC campers carrying backpacks, dry bags, or climbing gear as to where they are off to for their next adventure. Allowing the ETC campers to share their stories and excitement builds bonds. It is not uncommon for campers to attend one camp and then the following summer try another or a combination. Staff also cross the borders from one camp to the next. There are campers and staff who have attended all three camps.

Shared Marketing Encourages Relationships

Cross-promotion also helps. The winter reunion is open to anyone who wishes to attend, further building campers connections. The resident and ETC programs share a brochure, and all three programs share open houses where campers meet.

But the heart of what enables all three programs to co-exist peacefully lies in what is said on that ridge hike: there are no physical boundaries between the camp programs; the only boundaries are the mental ones staff members carry with them. The size of the facility matters less than the size of the hearts of the staff and campers who fill it.

Anthony R. Cardno is senior environmental education program specialist at Fairview Lake YMCA Camps and Conference Center in Newton, New Jersey. During the summer, he leads trips for ETC and is the ETC CIT director.

Originally published in the 1998 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.

 

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