The American Camp Association (ACA), as an association nearing its 100th birthday, has managed to evolve and adapt over time. Today, ACA is possibly facing the most critical need in its history to facilitate a powerful transformation. As an association we can effect a change that creates an environment that embraces viability—viability not for the camp community but for children, youth, and families . . . those who need and deserve the camp experience.
The camp experience serves as a change agent in the lives of nearly ten million children each year. That number, although it may sound impressive, is not acceptable. It represents fewer than 20 percent of the youth population. If we believe the camp experience adds value to the lives of children, youth, and adults, why would we let ourselves be lulled into satisfaction serving so few? To serve so few, without qualification, suggests self-serving satisfaction for a small community. We should possess a social and organizational commitment to ensure all children and youth have the opportunity to participate in a positive camp experience . . . an experience that enriches the lives of children, youth, and adults. We provide enrichment experiences that add value to our natural world, that develop communities of citizens who participate in authentic relationships, and that create opportunities to pursue human-powered activities — all of which promote wellness of both the heart and spirit.
One of the trends we see in the world today is an increasing awareness of social and moral responsibility — how one creates benefit. Another trend we are witnessing is the dramatic change in the landscape of the world population. If camp serves as a change agent in the lives of children, youth, and families, maybe it is time we serve as our own change agent. It is our moral responsibility — our imperative — to articulate how we impact societal needs. If we know many do not embrace the camp experience because of a lack of understanding, opportunity, or fear, does it not behoove us to think how we might change in order to change the thinking of others? I believe that we must first change how we see and think about ourselves if we hope to change how those around us see us.
How Do We Accomplish This?
The first step we must take is to confront the brutal facts that stand between us and success. Our association systems are not contemporary. Our association profile does not reflect the changing societal demographics. When our systems cannot respond to the ever-changing world, our relevance is threatened. When we look less and less like the world in which we live, our relevance is threatened even more. If we are to experience success, we must not only confront, but even more so tackle, the brutal truth of relevance. In our rapidly changing world, tomorrow we cannot look like we did one hundred years ago, let alone how we looked yesterday. It is possible for us to maintain our DNA — the substance of what we are — but, at the same time, in order to survive, we must evolve. We must consider a radical rethinking of ourselves and the expression of our value in today's world. We may not be able to define camp simply, because it has evolved to encompass so much, but we can certainly define the essential elements of the quality experience.
We suffer brand recognition. We often feel we only need to say the words more frequently or louder — Camp Gives Kids a World of Good®. In truth, we may be branding ourselves with the noun "camp" that we no longer own. Or worse, we may be branding ourselves around a single program that resonates with an ever-shrinking marketplace.
Mattress companies learned years ago that selling mattresses didn't work. Customers couldn't see the value in replacing a perfectly "good" mattress. But, when they started selling "a better night's sleep," they were able to realize extraordinary success — convincing consumers that they needed newer and better mattresses — which would result in that "better night's sleep."
We need to brand the value of the experience in the lives of children, youth, and adults. We have learned that amplifying camp or accreditation does not bring the desired results — whatever we're saying isn't resonating as it should with today's families. To only brand a noun that we don't own — nor can we define — in today's world is shortsighted not only in the camp community but in the public marketplace at large.
Yet, we cling to a shrinking minority market of people and camps to the detriment of the millions of children and youth who never have a chance to participate in the experience we offer. Articulation of our value in the broader context of the world serves as a bridge to those who are impacted both by global and social issues — the children, youth, and adults whom we are exceptionally positioned to serve.
Once again, I suggest we consider a social movement — a movement embraced with emotional intensity and committed to action that is centered around a deeply understood value — the value of the experience. We must consider a movement that aggressively pursues innovation — innovation that enables the inherent soul of the local, national, and international camp community to act and articulate to the public with collective identity around the benefit of this experience. We must articulate how we have a positive impact on societal needs and how we change lives to enhance positive citizenship in today's world. We must advocate for children, youth, and families first — not camp. We must not only embrace the notion of "build it and they will come" — we must live it.
We Must Find Our Voice
We are camp professionals, and we are proud of who we are and what we do. But we are more than this. We are advocates for quality, developmental experiences for children, youth, and families. We are responsible citizens in today's world. We must find our voice — a voice that is clear and focused — a voice that is able to offer a strong, calm message of opportunity to those clamoring for reason — a voice that can break through the cacophony of noise and provide children, youth, and families with what they desperately need to hear.
We cannot use a passive voice or depend on a single one to communicate our message. To do so only weakens clarity and prevents the global reception so desperately needed. We must galvanize our diverse, multiple voices and establish a turbocharged trajectory toward the future. The harmony of those voices will only come with practice — not with hesitation while we wait for perfection or consensus — simply the practice of a collective, strong message. If camp is meant to "give a world of good," it is our collective mission — using our voices and vision — to educate and to facilitate a better tomorrow. A solitary voice, though beautiful, can lack depth. A choir without diversity in range lacks richness. Let's bring our voices together to express better tomorrows.
Peg L. Smith is the chief executive officer of the American Camp Association. Please contact her at 765-342-8456 or by e-mail at psmith@ACAcamps.org .
Originally published in the 2008 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.