Once upon a time, the resident camp directors spent the off-season preparing for a few intensive summer months. When summer ended and campers were back at school, directors returned to the home office to catch their breath and begin planning next summer's season.
How the camp field has changed! Many of today's camps operate year-round, have expanded to conference and environmental education centers, and thrive with progressive programs and thousands of students, campers, adults, and families.
During the 1960s and '70s, many camp owners and agencies realized what tremendous assets they possessed in their camps. Spectacular acreage coupled with the ability to house groups encouraged directors to expand usage. With that realization, the push for facility winterization and year-round programming began.
Today's Resident Camps
A glimpse of today's resident camps reveals a multitude of programs, from environmental education to medical camp collaboratives to adult conferencing and family camping. This expansion of the traditional youth camp has brought with it challenges. No longer will spaghetti and hot dogs suffice as food service; no longer will campers accept antiquated plumbing; no longer do summer huts suffice as housing. Times have changed.
Even with these challenges, the future holds exciting prospects for resident camping. As natural space and environmental preservation become more important to society, camps stand ready to serve as ideal experiential teaching centers. While social interactions transform to an impersonalized on-line world, the simplified outdoor lifestyle found at camp will prove more valuable. Camps provide powerful hands-on experiences. The camp director of tomorrow will utilize technology to shape and extend their service, yet will maintain a traditional high-touch experience.
Manning the Ship
A resident camp can be analogized to a large ship; an entire floating city complete with lodging, food service, self-contained utilities, and extensive facilities. A camp director is routinely responsible for populations of 100 to 500 persons, 24 hours per day. Camp directors must be proficient in:
- Dining operations, managing food costs, menu selection, and food-handling safety.
- Building maintenance of 10 to100 structures.
- Portable water supply, septic and leech field systems.
- Housing administration for 10 to 150 resident staff.
- Forestry and watershed management.
- Lodging for campers and guests, a twenty-four-hour responsibility.
- Alumni and volunteer development.
- Capital construction and financial development.
- Adventure programming and waterfront management, often including lake
or riverfront aquatics programs.
- Risk management, especially in high-risk outdoor settings.
Today's camp director must serve first as an administrative director. Financial management, personnel administration and management, information systems, marketing, program development, and strategic and operational planning are common to all camp directors. Agency camps include board development as a key result. Yet in addition to these business skills, the role of a camp director demands more.
Beyond these technical skills, camps are often known for the charismatic leadership of their directors. This component represents the art of camp leadership. It is not easily learned.
With all these requisite skills, most successful camp directors have been carefully mentored through the ranks. Beginning as camp counselors, promoted to seasonal unit leader, advancing to year-round program directors, then finally moving into associate or executive roles; experiential learning has proven the best training path. With so many skills required, it is difficult, yet not impossible, to step in to resident camping without prior experience.
Fortunately, the camp community is close-knit; directors gather often to share unique challenges and ideas at regional and national conferences. Successful directors take full advantage of these networking opportunities, and many are building advanced studies into their professional development plans. Master's degrees in business administration, environmental engineering, public policy, sociology, or psychology are often found on the resumes of today's camp director. In order to stay on the cutting edge, candidates and directors are taking full advantage of continuing study, both within and outside of the camp community.
The role of camp director has never been more challenging than it is today. Camp populations have broadened to all age groups. Seasons have been extended. The need for skilled and certified staff has grown while the workforce has shrunk. Increased government regulations have permeated daily operations, especially with so many facets of camp under regulatory control. Camps once built in remote rural environments are now squeezed by the encroachment of suburban sprawl. Today's campers bring lots of extra "baggage" to camp. Social/emotional issues, negative societal influences, the explosive growth of medications to manage ADHD, depression or allergies, the impact of broken homes and at-risk environments make camp counseling more challenging than ever.
As the program volume of camps has grown, there has been an increase in the diversity of camp positions. New directors of alumni development, corporate-adult team building, financial development, capital development, management information systems, operational services, and community outreach are just a few of the non-traditional camp vacancies listed recently. Increased specialization and expertise will open new opportunities.
Resident camping has undergone significant transition in the past twenty years. The sheer diversity of today's camp director position makes it a fantastically stimulating and rewarding life's call. The powerful impact of the camp experience on children and adults adds tremendous reward. Those who are close to the complexity, challenge, and diversity of the camp director's role realize the unique position that is found "out there at camp."
Perhaps someday the question, "What do you do the rest of the year?" will disappear forever. Although . . . then again . . . perhaps it never will.
Reprinted with permission with alterations from the January 2000 issue of Perspective, the journal of the Association of Professional Directors of YMCAs.
Tom Madeyski currently serves as executive director of camping services for the YMCA of San Diego County, California. Prior to that, he mentored with YMCA Camp Fitch, Youngstown, Ohio; YMCA Camp Sea Gull, Raleigh, North Carolina; and YMCA Camp Jewell, Hartford, Connecticut. Tom can be reached at email@example.com .
Originally published in the 2000 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.