"He did what?" "She never acted like that when she was a camper." "Are you sure that’s what happened?" Do these comments sound familiar? Camps offering leadership development programs are sometimes surprised at choices young people make — even if they were known as campers. The responsibility of training young adults is clearly one of the biggest challenges camp administrators face. Many aspects of running a camp change from year to year, but few are as complex as teaching the group who are no longer campers and yet not old enough to be paid staff. It is common for senior staff to express frustration at seemingly unexplained behavior or poor choices on the part of an aspiring Counselor-in-Training or CIT. What can be done to alleviate this dilemma and what should camps include in a quality program?
Are You Prepared for This Age Group?
Whether you have an existing leadership development program or are thinking about starting one, (similar programs may be called Leaders in Training, Leaders in Development, Counselor Assistants), you must decide how much time you are willing to devote to these special people. The complexities of being successful when dealing with this age group are often dependent upon having someone on staff with the unique ability to communicate with young people using language they understand. As the priorities change for this age group, so do the methods for teaching them. Here is a quick example. How many directors know what the #1 song is on the billboard or hip hop charts? Who has taken the time to purposely see how CITs are relating to each other in their daily lives away from camp?
OK, this may be a little extreme for traditional programs, but how do you see this position affecting the future of your camp? What are you doing now to ensure your camp’s developmental staffing goals are being met? The task is to express your ideals and principles experientially while providing a safe environment for individual growth. To effectively understand this position is to recognize CITs must create their own identity. They will ultimately understand their success by the capacity they have to produce. Since their responsibilities are all new, CITs must absorb a lot of information at an alarming rate. This "sponge syndrome," or the process of retaining camp knowledge from a staff’s perspective, must be carefully monitored for its content. In addition to camp philosophy, it must include fundamental concepts that help new CITs understand who they are, where they came from, what the parameters are for an open discussion, and the most unique feature — they have the right to fail.
An Environment That Rewards Effort
When outlining a quality program, it is extremely important that potential applicants understand the process of gaining leadership qualities is not exact. Take a moment and explain the type of decision-making they will do and what will happen as a result of their actions. Often CITs make great choices and when it happens, compliments should be both immediate and specific. Let them know beforehand while all their decisions will not be right, they will have an opportunity to correct them. Unfortunately, when situations arise which are not handled well, it reflects poorly on you and your staff. To assure the success of this process, it is very important CITs be placed into situations where lead staff control the level of decision-making.
Take the Risk
New or Existing Program?
Even though the rewards of a well-run program will far outweigh any potential problems, you still have to start a new program or improve an existing one. New programs do not have any pre-existing bias so it is a matter of finding applicants, developing a curriculum, and implementing it. If you have an existing program, challenge yourself to make it more relevant by including former staff in content development. You can partially fix any problems from last year by reviewing what areas need to be improved, but you can vault ahead of that one-sided perspective by looking at it from another direction. To dramatically increase your productivity from 2004, try developing your curriculum using outcome-based objectives. First determine the expected outcomes you wish to achieve then work backwards in program development. Always keep in mind every activity or task they are given should support the original mission — what will they be better able to accomplish as a result of completing your leadership program?
Training Them to Do Your Job
Make It Meaningful
To keep this process simple, topics will be divided into two areas: camp and personal. Depending on your organization’s goals and objectives, these may differ, but some general camp topics might include philosophy, safety, clientele, program, physical plant, natural barriers, emergency procedures, team building and the like. Personal questions may include life away from home, being from another country, no longer being a camper, camp status, peer explanations, first-time job doubts, or understanding camp responsibility. The director’s ability to blend these concepts will go a long way in determining the success of a CIT’s performance.
Personalize the Components
It is critical to pre-determine what these program components are going to look like in practice. Getting the most out of a potential applicant begins with the initial contact.
Don’t Isolate Your CITs
It is the camp’s responsibility to create a situation where a successful experience is likely. Staff interaction is camp-wide but position opinions are frequently discussed in or around the cabin area. To avoid any potential problems that result from unadvised comments, have CITs make decisions on simple issues where all staff can have equal weight. Have them visit other camps for a day to see how other programs are run. Place them in specialty areas to experience the responsibilities of other staff. Have the whole group of CITs plan an activity for younger campers and let them supervise it. Make sure evaluations are completed and submitted when needed.
In non-traditional camp regions, it can be difficult for staff to explain what they do to their friends. Because some assignments may require work from home, this preparation can make the difference between success and frustration. Staff development, especially for applicants who have been campers, can be difficult. Explain the pitfalls of having friends who are still campers and neighbors at the same time. Having them wear their own official camp CIT shirt will go a long way towards creating an identity. They will feel empowered and proud once they know a few tricks such as different teaching techniques, time-filler games, how to convey ideas, and the development of age-appropriate rules. Make sure the experience reflects what has been outlined to their parents so in times of hardship or camp-related stress they will support your mission.
Creating Quality Leaders
If you are not creating quality leaders from your program or you need to start a process to improve future staff, consider implementing some of these ideas. By taking the time to outline different aspects of program development, you can begin to actively introduce new staff into an existing program.
Providing an opportunity for leadership development in a carefully structured environment is vital to today’s young adults. With all the pressures of growing up in an instant information society, it is critical that CITs have an avenue supporting quality decision making through guided personal choice. In order to succeed, camps must offer programs which change with time yet stay true to their mission. By empowering CITs to meet this challenge, you are training future staff who will be motivated and dedicated to your camp for many years to come.
Greg Cronin, C.C.D., is camp director for Congressional Day Camp in Falls Church, Virginia. You may contact him via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org .
Originally published in the 2005 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.