When reflecting on our formative years, most of us remember family vacations, picnics, and camping trips as important to family recreation, relationships, and memories. Increasingly, people are enjoying outdoor activities. Easily overlooked are the many low-income families without the financial or transportation means to make such experiences possible.
Since 1997, Camp Magruder, a United Methodist ministry on the north Oregon coast, has sponsored a program called Creation Vacation, providing gift four-day vacations to families living in low-income housing. Hosting seventeen families the first year, by 2000 the program had grown to two sessions, serving forty-nine families (194 persons) from Portland and Salem, Oregon. The participating families have given many positive reports about the benefits of relaxed recreation time in the midst of the natural setting.
The camp staff works with community social workers to recruit, screen, and prepare families for the camp experience. Families were selected to attend based on several criteria: (1) parent/guardian and children lived together in the community and would attend the camp together; (2) if applicable, family members were in recovery and not currently experiencing active addiction or abuse; and (3) family members were viewed by the community social workers as interested in a family camp experience. Thus, the families who attended were not necessarily representative of the housing community as a whole. The families meet during the spring with their social worker and the camp director to plan and prepare for the vacation - families offer input regarding activities and logistics. Bus and van transportation is provided. At camp, the families each have their own room and are provided wholesome meals and snacks, recreation and craft activity options, insurance, a disposable camera and film development, and bedding and personal items needed to make the vacation possible. The families engage in a variety of activities, including swimming, boating, beach play, donkey rides, variety show, campfires, crafts for all ages, hikes, and watching sunsets.
Volunteers, known as family friends, are recruited from churches and the camp community. Each family friend is paired with one or two families. They welcome and orient the families upon arrival, guide activity participation, build friendships, and assist with children so that parents get both respite and one-on-one time with different family members.
The cost has been approximately $500 per family. The camp director has raised funds from foundations, individuals, churches, and the camp's business suppliers. In 2000, the cost of meals for the children was partly covered by the USDA Summer Food Service Program for low-income children.
To guide program design and to explore the possible outcomes for participants of the camp experience, Camp Director Ted Hulbert contacted Portland State University Professor Ann Fullerton to conduct an outcomes study of the July 2000 session. The director, community social worker, professor, and students met to determine the study questions, methods for gathering and analyzing the data, and roles each could play in this process. This collaborative effort allowed the team to pool resources and conduct an outcome study at little cost. The camp and housing community staff assisted with data collection and preparation, and the university provided data analysis and written reports.
Family camping programs have been associated with improved family bonds and relationships (Hawks, 1991). Programs that bring members of low-income communities together can foster greater community cohesiveness (Stagner & Duran, 1997). The team was interested in three possible outcomes of the camp experience.
- Did families experience outcomes related to the natural setting and outdoor activities?
- Did families experience outcomes in the area of family relationships (e.g., connection, quality time together)?
- Did members of a low-income housing community experience outcomes in the area of community building (e.g., meet one's neighbors, more cohesive community)?
To explore the outcomes from multiple perspectives, both the families and the volunteers were interviewed at the end of the camp experience. In order to explore whether the experience was associated with any changes after the families returned to their homes and communities, the families completed a survey five months later.
Families were asked if they wished to participate in the study. It was stressed that families were free to decline participation, with no repercussions to their involvement in the camp experience. The procedures used to ensure confidentiality were also described. Nineteen or 70 percent of the twenty-seven families agreed to be interviewed and complete the survey. The family friends were asked to interview the families and to interview each other at the end of the vacation experience, all of the family friends agreed to participate.
The camp director, social worker, and university researchers developed the interview and survey questions (see Figure 1). Before families arrived, the family friends were instructed on how to conduct the interviews and record responses. On the last day of the vacation, each family friend interviewed the family with which they had spent time. After the families left for home, the family friends took turns interviewing each other. Five months later, the community social worker delivered a survey to each family and collected them after they were completed. All of these handwritten responses were then typed for analysis and numeric codes were assigned to each response to ensure confidentiality. Two researchers, working independently, read and categorized all of the responses for each question. They then met and compared the categories they had identified, discussed any disagreements, and reached consensus on how to code each response. The number and percentage of responses, which fell into each category, was determined. The qualitative methods used are described in an easy-to-use book, Beginning Qualitative Research: A Philosophic and Practical Guide. See the reference list for more information.
The families represented a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds including Hispanic, African-American, Vietnamese, Hmong, and Caucasian. Family size ranged from one to six children (average of two per family) who were from one to eighteen years of age. All nineteen participating families described one or more positive outcomes of the camp experience during the post-camp interview and five months later via the survey. Different families experienced different outcomes, as described below.
Outcomes associated with a natural setting and outdoor activities
When asked how it had felt to spend time at the beach and surrounding area, 61 percent of the families commented on the peacefulness and relaxation. About one-third talked about enjoying the natural world and another third about the break from the city noise and pollution. A few described health benefits such as relief from allergies and better sleep. Three families commented that such vacation opportunities were rare in their lives; two families had never been to the beach, which is eighty miles from their home.
The volunteers observed that these families gained new comfort in the natural setting and new excitement and fascination with the environment. For example, ". . . They were hungry for new information about the natural world, wanted to watch stars, learn information about the tides, find out the names of the plants and trees . . . ."
Five months later, when surveyed about their most memorable camp story or experience, 50 percent recalled the beach and natural surroundings. As one parent said, ". . . I love getting out and away from the city to camp, hike, and just enjoy the peace and quiet that being here allows you. It gives you time to relax and go back to your everyday routines with a fresh attitude . . . ." For other parents (40 percent), their fondest memory was seeing their child (or themselves) engage in a new activity such as rowing a boat or singing in front of others at campfire.
Outcomes for family relationships
At the end of the camp experience, 50 percent of the families said that the opportunity for time together as a family, without other demands, was an important outcome of the experience. One half of the families learned new things about family members that they had not known before, and 37 percent of the families commented that eating meals together was a practice they had experienced at the camp that they planned to continue at home.
The volunteers' observations were consistent with the families' self-reports. In addition, however, the volunteers observed that as parents became more relaxed in the natural setting and viewed it as a safe environment, they gave their children more freedom to explore the setting and try new things. One mother wrote, "My most memorable happening is the feeling of complete security for my girls that I get when I get off the bus at camp."
Five months later, family members were asked via the survey if the camp experience had influenced how they did things as a family or otherwise benefited their family. Fifty percent of the families mentioned that they had been spending more time doing things together as a family. One family specifically mentioned continuing the practice of eating meals together. One half of the families also stated that their family had grown closer and bonded more as a family since the trip. One quarter of the families described specific ways of interacting with family members that they had observed in other families, or had discussed with their family friend, which they continued to practice themselves since the camp trip. For example, one parent commented " . . . I'm more careful how I express myself to my children . . . . "
Outcomes for the community
At the end of the vacation, 74 percent of the families reported that they had met or befriended new individuals or families who also lived in their housing community, mentioning people by name. One parent reported, ". . . I have met more families in three days than I have met in a year . . . ." Members of three families (15 percent) noted that they intended to continue these new friendships after they returned home. Volunteers observed 59 percent of the families either deepened existing or formed new relationships with other families.
Five months later, 79 percent of the families reported that they felt more comfortable saying "hello" and stopped more often to talk to others in their neighborhood. Since the camp vacation, 32 percent of the families had either stayed in touch or spent time with new friends they had met during the vacation. This included whole family, adult-adult, and child-child friendships.
Families were also asked if they had observed any change in how other people interacted with each other in the community. Sixty-three percent noted that when people met each other on the street or in the buildings they were more comfortable saying "hi" and talking to one another; which ". . . we would not have done before . . . ." A few (16 percent) commented that their neighbors had gotten together, or stayed in touch with others, since the trip. One person said ,". . . they now seem to have a wider circle of friends and network opportunities . . . ."
Others acknowledged that they wanted more contact with others than time allowed. Still, they wrote that the vacation was an important shared experience of the community:
". . . Seeing people from Creation Vacation on the street . . . it's a quick hello and they're off to their busy life. Maybe there is no after-camp contact, but it all comes back at the first planning meeting [for the next trip]. We have something very pleasureful in common-our wonderful, most-looked-forward-to vacation, peace and quiet, worry free . . . . "
These comments were consistent with the observations of community social workers-the shared experience of the camp vacation was a factor that contributed to positive interactions in the housing community.
Although qualitative and descriptive in nature, the results of this study suggest that the Creation Vacation family camp is associated with positive outcomes for low-income families and their community. The study also illustrates a process whereby camps, social agencies, and universities can partner to conduct small-scale studies useful in program design and evaluation.
In studies that use on-site interviews where staff interview participants or other staff, the situation may bias participants to give positive responses. Participants may want to reciprocate for their free vacation, and staff may want to feel they have made a difference. It's important to keep this potential bias in mind when reviewing results. When conducting interviews, it's a good idea to ask respondents to give specific examples of outcomes that can later be reported. That way, the reader can assess the significance of these descriptions of behavior change.
As organized camping continues to develop ways to examine and report outcomes; we will all have a knowledge-base from which to determine what kinds and depth of outcomes we hope to achieve from a four-day or weeklong experience. As such research increases, one meta-finding is emerging - that outdoor programs appear to produce positive outcomes that continue after the experience. This is less true of other types of program interventions (Neill, 2002). In this small-scale study, families reported several positive outcomes that had continued five months later.
|Hawks, S. R. (1991). Recreation in the family: In: Family research - a sixty year review 1930-1990, Vol. 1, Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.|
|Mayhut, P. & Morehouse, R. (1994). Beginning qualitative research: A philosophic and practical guide. Washington, D.C.: The Falmer Press.|
|Neill, J. (2002). The state of play: Reviewing meta-analytic research on the outcomes of outdoor education. Coalition for Education in the Outdoors Research Symposium, Bradford Woods, IN, January, 11-13.|
|Stagner, M. W. & Duran, M. A. (1997). Comprehensive community initiatives: Principles, practice, and lessons learned. The future of children, 7, 132-140.|
Ann Fullerton, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University.
Ted Hulbert is director of Camp Magruder, Rockaway Beach, Oregon.
Paul Pierson is a teacher in Portland Public Schools, Portland, Oregon.
Jennifer Waldorf is a teacher in David Dougless Schools, Portland, Oregon.
Annie Calhoun is the volunteer coordinator of Creation Vacation and a social worker.
For information about the Creation Vacation program contact Ted Hulbert at: firstname.lastname@example.org .
Originally published in the 2002 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.