Camp Gives Staff a World of Good

by M. Deborah Bileschki, Karla A. Henderson, and Kate Dahowski

Thousands of young adults work in organized camps each year. Often directors focus on the good that camp does kids, but a significant component may also be the good that camp does staff. Young people choose this summer opportunity for a variety of reasons related to their personal and professional interests. Although these young people are often idealistic and altruistic, they also expect to gain benefits from these camp jobs. If directors better understand the positive outcomes sought by young people, they may be able to recruit more qualified and committed staff for these work experiences.

With these issues in mind, the Association of Independent Camps (AIC) funded systematic research to analyze the perceived benefits associated with summer camp staff experiences. The concept of benefit was not used in an economic sense in this study. Rather, a benefit was defined as "a change that is viewed to be advantageous — an improvement in condition or gain to an individual" (Driver, Brown, and Peterson, 1991). The purpose of this study was to see how camp staff, themselves, perceived their camp experiences.

The Study

The goal of the study was to understand counselors’ perceptions about the camp staff experience as expressed in their own words. Therefore, data for this project were obtained from focus groups. This group technique allowed for group interaction and greater insight into why certain opinions were held. The technique is particularly appropriate to use when the goal is to explain how people regard an experience, idea, or event. The result is information that can improve the planning and design of new programs, evaluate existing programs, and provide insights into the development of marketing strategies (Krueger, 1988).

The focus groups for this study were conducted primarily on college campuses. The only criterion for inclusion in the study was that the individual had worked at camp as a staff person (but not as an intern) for at least one season. A total of fifty-two individuals were involved in the interview process in ten separate focus groups. All but six of the participants were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two years old, and no one was older than twenty-seven or younger than eighteen years. The participants had been staff members at day and resident agency camps, religiously affiliated camps, and independent camps located in eight different states. Their positions ranged from first-year counselors to administrative program staff.

The general procedure followed in the interview process was to introduce the question and then let the group members discuss their opinions until they had expressed all their views. If points were vague, the interviewer probed further to clarify the statement or to gain further explanations and discussion of related points.

Positive Outcomes

Analysis of the group interviews revealed a number of positive personal and professional outcomes. These outcomes focused on relationships with other staff and campers, appreciation of diversity, interpersonal skills, group cohesion, leadership and responsibilities, role modeling/mentoring, technical skill development, personal growth, administrative skills, and teamwork.

Relationships
Relationships between the individual and other staff and campers was one of the most prominent themes to emerge from the data. Every participant in the study mentioned the importance of the friendships formed at camp. When analyzing the staff relationships, one staff member said, "I just love camp experiences. Those are probably the best memories of my life and one of them is because of the friendships." Another counselor summed up these relationships best by saying, "Knowing someone at camp for a week is like knowing them for a lifetime."

These bonds of friendship extended to the campers with whom the staff worked. The staff interviewed often talked about the importance of the interaction with the campers and having an opportunity to observe and influence the positive development of a child. Several staff commented on the challenge of finding a balance between being a friend and being the responsible adult who needed to set and enforce rules and boundaries. One statement made was "I had to be the mom and the disciplinarian and the boo-boo fixer."

For many staff this relationship raised their awareness of social issues that influenced the lives of their campers. A staff member said the value of camp was "giving the kids a week of just fun and something to keep them going because a lot of things in society today bring them down." Counselors commented on the difficult lives led by some of their campers and their desire to make a difference in the children’s lives, even if only for a brief time. One staff member said, "If you give them a half hour, they will remember you the rest of their lives."

Appreciation of diversity
Another theme that was prevalent among the staff members was the value they placed on working with diverse people. Many of the staff viewed the exposure to different backgrounds of campers and staff as a benefit to them now and in their future job settings.

Some of the staff talked about the benefits of having a "large socioeconomic draw" among their staff and campers. Others commented on the value of just being exposed to people different from themselves. One staff member said, "I got a chance to work with all these different people that I would have never met outside of camp." Working with international staff was also an opportunity that gave some young adults the opportunity "to see a new aspect of different parts of the world."

Teamwork
Many of the staff commented on the importance of learning to work together as a team and recognized the resulting benefits of trust and respect within the team. Comments were made such as:

  • "I think anyone in any profession would really benefit from being in that type of team environment."
  • "On my counselor team, we learned to respect each other so much."
  • "No one member of the staff can do it on their own, so you have to work as a team."

Group cohesion
Closely related to teamwork was the theme of group cohesion. Camp staff talked of the bonds established and the feeling that they were developing their own sense of community and family. They felt this emphasis on group cohesion had personal benefits but also had professional implications when learning to find common ground with co-workers.

Personal growth
Personal growth was another positive outcome. This included personal character ("You get to meet people who know you for who you are because you are not wearing a facade that you might have in another situation"), self-esteem ("When you’re up there you feel important to everybody"), confidence ("I think it gives you serious confidence"), and spiritual growth ("For me, I get bogged down with organized religion, and camp was a place where religion was fun yet I felt real growth spiritually"). The staff often framed these benefits as important aspects of their identity that would be helpful in future life pursuits.

Leadership and responsibilities
For many of the staff members, leadership and responsibilities were a critical benefit to their camp experiences. One comment was "Having to be responsible for, you know, ten to twelve people and not being able to run away from any problems was real, real valuable."

Many of the staff talked about the sense of responsibility relative to the lives of their campers and their own development of judgment. One staff member said, "It is very important that you are good at what you do because these kids’ lives are in your hands." Staff saw these benefits as having important carryover into other aspects of their personal and professional development.

Role modeling/mentoring
Since camp staff perceived themselves to be in positions of responsibility and leadership and were involved in meaningful personal relationships, they were viewed as role models or mentors for the campers or other staff. Many of the staff commented on their perceptions and the value they attached to this role. One counselor summed it best when he said, "Every action you have, they see as a model for them."

Technical skill development
For some of the staff members, the chance to acquire technical skills, particularly related to their careers was perceived as a benefit. Some staff interested in careers in the outdoors commented on the value of learning these activities and gaining expertise while at camp. For several of the inter-viewees, the skill development extended to their perceptions of leadership. A counselor stated, "I think the most important thing is that you learn how to incorporate all of your skills."

In addition, the camp experience also provided a way to enhance recreation skills that staff perceived they could draw on throughout their lives. One staff member said, "It’s experiencing things that I have never experienced before, like camp outs, water rafting, rock climbing. You can be a counselor and still be learning these things."

Interpersonal skills
Counselors in the study emphasized communication and innovative thinking. For example, one staff member talked about communication as it related to parents: "The parents see you when they drop their kids off, and you have half an hour to impress them one way or another. What you say and how you present yourself makes a big difference in how they go home."

Almost all of the staff commented on the positive carryover of interpersonal skills to future job possibilities. Related to problem solving and innovative thinking, statements were made such as:

  • "You have to be quick and solve unexpected problems and learn how not to overreact."
  • "Problem solving is not going to be just with the children; it will apply to all areas of your life."

Administrative skills
The last positive outcome centered on acquiring administrative skills. Some of the staff felt that they had opportunities to learn about issues such as risk management, safety issues, and medications. One counselor said, "Without really understanding and without having the proper gear, there were a lot of safety issues that were involved."

Negative External Forces

During the course of the focus groups, staff identified seven external forces that impinged upon the potential benefits of working as a camp staff member. These negative influences centered on: dealing with diversity, low wages, lack of time for self, negative perceptions of influential others, frustration with campers, cliques, and lack of director support.

Diversity
Issues of diversity related to not being able to work well with some individuals. This problem was often due to a lack of understanding of what being a camp counselor meant. One illustrative comment was "I think the concept of being a camp counselor never really set in."

Low wages
Wages are an issue for many young people. One staff member said, "The pay was not so good though . . . I think we figured it was like 7 cents an hour." Part of the concern also related to being acknowledged for the hard work done as illustrated in this comment "[The director] didn’t understand the $140 a week for what, 117 hours?"

Time alone
Lack of time for the self was also a drawback for individuals who were not prepared for the demands of camp. One staff member said, "I would say the toughest thing for me is there’s not time to be by yourself." Another counselor illustrated the problem by saying, "It seems the only way you can be alone is to lock yourself in your car."

Parents' perceptions
Perceptions of influential others regarding the status of working at camp was an external factor. One staff member said, "I had to defend [to my father] for a couple of summers why I was going to camp." Another staff member responded: "It was weird, all my friends were like, ‘Why would you want to leave for the whole summer?’ and I was like, ‘Why would I want to sit at home and watch TV all summer?’ "

Camper difficulties
Although working with campers was perceived as a benefit, it was also a frustration. One staff member said, "Camps certainly aren’t the cure-all for some kids." Another stated, "You are dealing with people that parents couldn’t deal with so they sent them to you." The need for staff training was evident in the following statement: "We would have children who had developmental or physical disabilities that we were never apprised of the situation, and we were never given any training on how to deal with these children."

Cliques
A big issue that was problematic for some staff was the existence of cliques in camps. One counselor said, "Camp (name) is like the established, been-there-forever counselors and kids, and I was the new guy. I was already on the out." Other staff recognized the problem for new staff because "they come in to this community where everybody is so close and they feel like they are an outcast."

Critical Components

Some members of the focus groups believed their experiences were shaped by the ways that the three critical components — camp philosophy, staff training, and staff support — were enacted to provide a positive or negative camp foundation. For example, when talking about the importance of the camp philosophy, a staff member commented, "The philosophy behind the camp is more important than the activities."

Staff also mentioned the importance of staff training as evidenced by the following comments:

  • "At staff training and prep week when we got to camp together, that really started the teamwork and the bonding."
  • "I really wish there had been, from the director’s perspective, more involvement of the camp counselors in how to make camp a better place, and how
    to teach you to be a better counselor."
  • "[Staff training] was highly unstructured, and I think a little more structure would have been more beneficial as a counselor."

Director support was a critical component for staff to have a successful experience. When it did not exist, it was a major external factor. Two illustrative comments were:

  • "Camp directors spend a lot of time at camp directing, and not really understanding."
  • "I don’t think that the directors gave enough recognition to the counselors and all the work they put in."

These quotes showed the types of frustrations and challenges faced by camp staff when working in a camp environment. These negative aspects are red flags for camp administrators who are interested in providing the optimal setting to promote the benefits of working at camp. The more these negative forces can be minimized or eliminated, the more likely the staff will perceive personal and professional benefits from their camp job experiences.

Putting It All Together

This analysis describes the breadth of the benefits perceived by the staff interviewed in the focus groups. Many of the themes were connected and influenced by opinions and perceptions that overlapped. As described in the interviews, the staff found the experience of working at camp to be rewarding and beneficial in personal and professional ways.

Although critical components were central to the work experience of the staff and they recognized the influence of external factors, these staff were highly committed to their jobs in camp and were able to articulate easily the benefits that they perceived from the experience. Self-interest was a key reason why these individuals chose to work at camp. In the process of doing good for campers, staff were also aware that they were helping themselves in many ways.

Using This Information

Based on these findings, a number of recommendations may be offered for camp directors in all types of camps. First, the positive outcomes of being a summer camp staff employee must be reinforced by camp directors in recruiting as well as in supervising staff. The transferability of personal and professional skills gained at camp should be a part of the debriefing of camp staff.

Have staff share their experience with others
Second, camp staff are good ambassadors for describing the benefits of camp jobs. These benefits might be articulated by them in written or verbal form. They should be encouraged to share these benefits with other potential staff, high school counselors, university career placement staff, and especially with their future employers.

Determine what counselors hope to gain from the experience
When hiring staff, spend time determining what young adults want from the camp experience to ensure that their expectations are reasonable and that the job for which they are hired meets those expectations. Job descriptions should be designed to appeal to the personal and professional interests of potential staff members.

Place emphasis on how camp is good for young adults. Many of the benefits of other social programs may be similar to the camp experience, and these connections should be emphasized.

Work with parents
Encouraging more young people to participate as summer camp staff may require that parents understand the value of working at camp. Perhaps directors could consider writing brief reports to staff members’ parents describing how much their son or daughter contributed and gained from the summer camp experience.

Finally, mitigating the negative perceptions of working at a camp job is an ongoing task of the profession. The camp experience may be more beneficial if camp directors consider improving some of the working conditions by allowing more time off and trying to raise staff salaries. In addition, the support given through training and daily contact with staff may be invaluable as these young people work toward their own personal and professional development. By giving staff a world of good through camp employment, campers’ worlds may also be enhanced, as well as the greater societal good.

M. Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Karla A. Henderson, Ph.D., is professor and chair at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Kate Dahowski is a graduate assistant working on a master of science in recreation administration at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The data collected for this article were contracted through the Association for Independent Camps’ focus on examining staff issues in camps.

References

Driver, Beverly L., and Perry J. Brown and George L. Peterson. Benefits of Leisure. State College, PA: Venture Publishing, 1991.

Henderson, Karla A. "Better Positioning Those Camp Jobs," Camping Magazine (March/April 1989): 34-37.

Krueger, Richard A. Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1988.

Napier, T.L., and E.G. Bryant. (1980) "Attitudes toward Outdoor Recreation Development: An Application of Social Exchange Theory," Leisure Sciences 3(2): 169-187.

 

Originally published in the 1998 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.

 

Tags: