Risk Management: Health and Wellness at Camp

by Ed Schirick

The health and wellness of your campers and staff is clearly one of your most important responsibilities during the camp season. Meeting this obligation depends largely on starting out with a sound base of facts about the health of each person at your camp and understanding how societal trends can influence camp life.

Gather the Facts

A critical issue for the health and well-being of campers and staff is obtaining accurate, current information from parents and prospective employees. ACA has developed the Health History Form and the Health History and Examination Form for this purpose. The forms are available from the ACA Bookstore (800-428-CAMP). If you are considering ACA accreditation for your camp or your camp is ACA accredited, the ACA Standards Program requires that you have a current health history on file for each camper and seasonal staff member (see Standards HW-2 and HW-6 in Accreditation Standards for Camp Programs and Services).

Standardize for efficiency
From a risk management perspective, it makes sense to specify how you want this health information sent to you. Since there are often hundreds of forms to review, there is real value to standardization. Whether you choose the ACA package of forms or some other standardized format, your staff will be able to review them more efficiently. Although not required by ACA standards, having a procedure to review the forms of returning campers and staff to identify any changes from prior years is good practice and provides important continuity.

Health history information must be carefully and accurately communicated to people who need to know (counselors, health center staff, head counselor, etc.). Special care must be taken to preserve the individual's privacy in this process.

Review and screen upon arrival
In addition to having a way to gather current health history facts, another critical issue for establishing and maintaining a healthful environment at camp is to do a thorough health information review and screening when campers and staff arrive.

Why is this important? From the perspective of the risk manager, parents have been known to forget, and in some cases, omit information because they judged it to be nonessential. One camp director shared a story about parents who didn't inform the camp their son was on Ritalin during the school year. That would have been significant enough, but they also omitted the fact that their doctor decided to discontinue use of the medication during the summer. Was that information the camp needed to know? Yes. Could a question, during camp registration, about discontinuance of any medication within the last six months have uncovered this fact? Yes. When was the last time you reviewed the questions you ask parents during this screening process?

Omissions, though well-intentioned, often occur because the parents are concerned that knowledge about the condition could present a problem for their child. Another camp director's story about a parent who didn't report that their child was an occasional bed wetter, is an example of this kind of situation. A review of health information and screening is an opportunity to uncover some of these omissions, as well as other facts that may be important. Refer to Standard HW-8 for more information on this issue. Although the standard doesn't require it, written documentation of this process makes lots of sense from everyone's perspective.

Camp Is a Microcosm of Society

The dynamics of society are at work in your camp community and present very real risks during the summer. You must recognize and manage the societal issues that operate to destabilize the environment of support and inclusion that camps work so hard to create.

Adolescent suicide
I was amazed to hear a recent CBS News report that stated 1.5 million teenagers suffer from depression in the United States. I was more amazed to hear that 8 percent of these teenagers actually attempt suicide each year. Teenage suicide, according to this report, has increased over 300 percent since 1960.

What have you done to help your staff recognize the signs of depression? Would they know what to do if they became aware of a camper who was talking about suicide? How would you talk about this issue with campers? Should you? Who would you choose to speak about the issue? What are the risks if you do talk about it? What are they if you don't discuss it?

A violent trend
Another societal issue involves conflict resolution and the trend toward violence among young people. It is difficult for me to write about health and wellness at camp without thinking about the tragedy that took place in Littleton, Colorado, last April. We recently learned painful lessons in the classrooms, in the hallways, and on the grounds of Columbine High School.

It occurred to me that camp professionals must be sensitive to the physical and emotional well-being of campers and staff alike. We have all felt the sting of exclusion from activities because our clothes didn't have the right label or because we couldn't catch the ball as well others or because we didn't go to the same school as others in the group. How should campers behave when they disagree with someone? What risk factors are at work shaping young people's intolerance and propensity toward violent solutions? Where are the role models for this violent behavior? Are they in the video games they play, in their homes, or on the highways?

Camps are not immune from violence. A camp director recently told me about an incident at her camp. One camper began choking another camper in the dining hall because the camper took his seat and wouldn't move. If it wasn't for the quick action of some counselors, the camper who was attacked would have been seriously injured. What are you doing to help identify campers with propensities toward violent behavior at your camp this summer? How would you handle the situation? Should your camp be discussing this issue? Who would you approach as a resource to help you develop some educational sessions on these issues? How is violent behavior addressed in your crisis management planning? What training does your staff need to help identify, reduce, and manage the risk?

The Broader Perspective

There is a tendency to focus on physical risks and injuries from program activities when talking or writing about camp risk management. The reality is that a much broader, more complex perspective on health, well-being, and safety exists and must be addressed. Fortunately, many wonderful people have devoted themselves to camping and to helping children develop into well-balanced, fully functioning adults. Unfortunately, considering the recent events at schools around the country, there is still a lot of work to do. Please keep up the good work.

Originally published in the 1999 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.