Camp Programs Provide Community Opportunities: Camp Henry Helps Community with Youth Diversions Program

by Gregory Vander Kooi, Judy Hughes Astle, and Jeff Jacobs

Camps that partner with their communities not only are good neighbors, but also assist in offering services that help solve local problems. Because of the complexity of community relationships in today’s world, it is beneficial for the camp director to focus resources on interacting with the local community in helpful ways. Carefully thought out community involvement builds support for your camp mission and provides services to the community that perhaps would not be available from other service providers. Providing facilities and services to assist with youth diversion programs is just one way that camps can interact with the local community. After sixty years of being a good neighbor in the community, Camp Henry, in Newaygo County, Michigan, became involved in just such a youth diversion program.

Response to Need

In 1995, Newaygo County, in rural west central Michigan, experienced three crucial changes — an increase in juvenile deviant behavior in the form of gang-related activity; an increase in total population, including the juvenile population; and an increase in petitions from the prosecutor’s office and probate court. These changes, along with increased strategic law enforcement activities in the local high school, doubled the workload of the juvenile justice system in three short years. Clearly, a quick and effective response was needed.

Dr. Agnes Baro, School of Criminal Justice, Grand Valley State University, secured the aid of F/Lt. Gregory Paul Vander Kooi, Newago Post Commander of the Michigan State Police, to study the problem. At the conclusion of the study, a juvenile justice master plan for Newaygo County was developed and submitted. Part of this plan included the use of the challenge education facilities and programming in a youth diversion program.

At the urging of the local prosecuting attorney, the Newaygo County Prosecutor’s Youth Diversion Program for drug and alcohol offenders was created. Team members who helped develop the program included the school liaison police officer, a psychologist, the prosecuting attorney, the families involved in the program, and challenge education professionals. This “Diversion Team” worked to create an effective program to educate young offenders in Newaygo County. Their goal was to create a diversion approach that was at least as cost effective as existing probate court options and was more effective in deterring repeat offenses or recidivism.

Newaygo County Prosecutor’s Youth Diversion Program

A program was designed and implemented that allowed youthful offenders and their parents or legal guardians to participate in an alternative to traditional forms of juvenile justice. As part of the program, the prosecuting attorney gave first-time offenders the option of participating in the program when their offense was the use of alcohol, drugs, or tobacco. The offenders and their parents were required to sign a contract that obligated them to complete the program and to no tolerance for further deviant behavior. If any of these conditions were not met, the violators were referred back to the probate court. Youth who complete the program have all fines waived and no juvenile record.

The program involved three components. The first component was an orientation meeting at which parents, the youth, and Diversion Team members learned the purpose of the program. Parents and youth were given the opportunity to talk about the importance of working together to complete the program and develop a contract of behavior.

The second meeting, and the bulk of time in the program, was a one-day event at Camp Henry where the youths participated in a series of adventure education activities, which included group initiatives and a ropes course experience. Each activity was preceded by a briefing and followed by a debriefing. These discussions focused on the intent of the activity as a tool to work on written contracts. The psychologist and a diversion M.S.W. attended each of the early diversion challenge programs at Camp Henry.

The third component of the Youth Diversion Program was a follow-up meeting to review lessons learned in the program, revisit the parent/youth contracts, and coach the relationship between parents and youth.

Camp Henry

Camp Henry had several things to consider before entering into an agreement with Newaygo County. Did involvement in the project fit well with the camp’s mission and philosophy? According to Jeff Jacobs who oversees the program at the camp, Camp Henry has a challenge course philosophy of “challenge by choice.” Participants in Camp Henry’s challenge programs are encouraged to be responsible for what level of involvement they will have in any activity and the consequences of that involvement. This includes the option to not participate at all. However, when young offenders agreed to participate in the Newaygo County Prosecutor’s Youth Diversion Program, they agreed to fully engage in all activities. Failure to do so resulted in expulsion from the program. Camp Henry resolved this philosophical dilemma by hiring staff skilled in dealing with resistant behavior in challenge programs; fully informing all participants of the consequences of their choice to participate or not participate, including possible expulsion from the diversion program; and allowing the court liaison officer to make the final decision about whether a particular participant’s level of engagement in activities met the criteria of participation in the diversion program. In this way, Camp Henry’s staff was able to support the camp’s program philosophy, which was an important issue to the camp; program philosophy is often referred to when determining best practices.

Another issue Camp Henry had to consider was appropriate staffing of the program. Because of the nature of the program, resistant behavior by participants was a reasonable expectation. Camp Henry looked for staff with college degrees and/or significant experience working with delinquent youth in the context of a challenge course. Camp Henry had well-established relationships with people who hold these qualifications, so this issue was readily handled. Without this type of staff resources at hand, a camp can consider staff training and/or team facilitation with community human service professionals that have expertise in counseling, youth development issues, and juvenile justice.

The nature of the collaborative relationship with other community members and how that might change over time is also an important issue to consider, according to Judy Astle, Executive Director of Camp Henry. The Newaygo County Prosecutor’s Youth Diversion Program has changed since it began in 1996. Now the day program is attended by Gale Beach, MSW, Newaygo County Diversion Program Coordinator, who works with a school liaison police officer and the Camp Henry staff. In early 2001, the Prosecutor’s Office transferred jurisdiction of the Diversion Program to the Newaygo County Sheriff’s Office, Youth Services Division, although all referrals continue to come from the Prosecutor’s Office. Pre and post sessions and counseling issues are handled by the Diversion Program staff. A new Camp Henry Program Director has taken up the challenge of delivering this program, and the Diversion Office continues to be very happy with the professionalism of Camp Henry lead program staff.

Camp Henry’s successful involvement in the Newaygo County program can provide you with several important steps to consider if you decide to administer such a program at your camp. First, you should establish the support of board leadership. The benefit of community involvement and congruency with the mission statement should be emphasized as part of this process. Second, because of the great variance in the definition and application of diversion programs, you should consult with local officials about local processes for handling juvenile justice and the appropriate involvement of camp in those processes. Third, you should become more than a local service provider by participating in the youth diversion program in its development stage. Finally, clearly define your camp’s role. Is your challenge course staff prepared to deal with the behavior that participants in youth diversion programs may exhibit? Who will be responsible for implementation and delivery? What issues of liability are unique to this program and how will that liability be managed?

The camp that partners with local officials in youth diversion programs stands to become a valuable resource to the local community. Most important, your camp’s involvement in youth diversion programs can create a lasting positive impact on participating youth, their families, and your community.

Gregory Vander Kooi is assistant professor at the School of Criminal Justice and Fire Science at Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

Judy Astle is an attorney and has been executive director of Camp Henry for nine years.

Jeff Jacobs, M.S.W, is a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota. He has eleven years experience at Camp Henry, designing and delivering programs.


Originally published in the 2001 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.