The Camp Community's Response to September 11: What We Did, Why We Did It, and What It Means
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With all the intricate issues that surround the vastly complex world of camp, we often find ourselves struggling to maintain a consistent level of superior programming. Finding innovative ways to accomplish our mission is paramount to our success. Never was that need more challenged than in the 2002 summer camp season. For the past year, people in the Northern Virginia and metropolitan Washington, D.C., area have been on a quest to rebuild the Pentagon and return to a more normal lifestyle. While jobs, commutes, security around federal buildings, and travel plans have changed for all who live here, each family is trying simultaneously to balance the horrors of September 11 with the desire to move on. The visual reminder of what took place at the Pentagon, and its repair in one year, has become a metaphor of rebuilding for people all across the country.
The immediate reality to my camp community in Falls Church, Virginia, was shock, funerals, and grief. Current and former staff checked in on a daily basis to hear the latest news from other families. People were trading numbers and looking through old staff address books to send support or make special visits to grieving friends. Through conversations and the unique magic of camp, people began to put the pieces back together.
Part of the healing process for many families in this region was to rely on something that has always been there for their children - camp. Based on the numbers and types of inquiries that we received prior to the summer, it quickly became clear that parents were looking for reassurance that camp would continue to be a safe and supportive environment for their children.
We began the monumental task of stabilizing our community - which includes military, civilian, and government personnel - by answering questions and addressing concerns with immediate pro-active responses. By getting the word out quickly that we were going to have camp in 2002, we definitely provided campers and staff a sense of calming relief. Included in our diverse camp community are families from Afghanistan. Being a part of camp and having an unconditional positive experience to look forward to really gave them great comfort as they continued to deal with issues of their homeland. Once these initial contacts were completed and the core of the community was informed, we began to focus on reeducating our camper families on the necessary values of the camp experience.
Parents took great comfort in our proactive approach to be especially supportive of emotional issues this summer. We spent a lot of time speaking with them about their fears and listening intently to their concerns. To help them return to a way of life that was familiar and grounded, certain camp values such as a sense of belonging, developing self-worth, being around positive role models, returning to a caring community, and being available to talk were discussed.
To take this process one step further, we embraced the idea by addressing concerns via e-mail, at open houses, on the phone, and during recruiting visits. The educational component of dealing with September 11 was then specifically addressed at staff orientation. Consultants were brought in to work with staff to teach them what to look for and how to handle specific camper concerns. Because stress is an insidious thing, we made an additional point to have a special presentation on the signs and symptoms of both current and delayed child abuse. At the conclusion of orientation, we held a special parent/camper/staff information meeting so individual parents could meet with and talk to their child's counselor. This helped to calm parents who were decidedly more nervous than usual as they finalized preparations for camp.
One main topic of universal concern was camp security. The lifestyle changes in our area were very extensive and thus affected the fundamental routines of almost everyone. While many returning families were already familiar with our extensive emergency and safety procedures, they wanted to hear them again. First-time parents had lots of diverse safety questions, and we outlined a number of safety procedures that specifically addressed their concerns - such as, pre-made placards for parent pick-up, asking parents for ID's, special lock-coded doors on all buildings, visitor check-in procedures, camper tracker forms, disaster plans, emergency codes for crisis management, etc. We instituted an additional code this year for dealing with mass disaster. Unlike our other drills, this is a drill only known to staff and is not shared or practiced with campers.
A "Normal" Experience
The decision was made to put in the time for extensive parent communication before camp so we could concentrate on providing the campers with a "normal" experience. We wanted to help them with their fears and concerns while building up their self-esteem through carefully designed age-appropriate activities. The stability and reassurance they received as individuals was not just from the schedule, it was also from the staff. We instructed counselors to increase their scheduled calls home for campers who were struggling with the adjustment to normal camp procedures. Even though this is a standard procedure, we tightened the parameters on what to look for - unexplained behavior, changes in attitude, or prolonged periods of depression.
To address the additional post September 11 issues of this summer, we made special use of our supervisors, nurse, and whole management team. Special training was required, and it started when staff were initially hired. It continued through orientation with help from both crisis management consultants and talks from police special agents who addressed some concerns specific to our area. Throughout the summer, counselors and staff were provided time and non-evasive opportunities to privately discuss their thoughts in the clinic or director's office.
All summer the entire management team was very visible to the parents. Key times such as camper drop-off, early pick-up, bus transportation periods, afternoon pick-up, and extended hours were times when the administrative presence was stronger than normal. We also targeted nonregular programming time such as parent/camper evenings and the morning before each session to address concerns. At each session, before camp started, special information tables were set up, and parents were encouraged to share their thoughts and concerns with members of the administrative team.
While no camp experience is ever the same from year to year, it is critical for our campers to know that we are here for them - unconditionally. The reassurance we provide parents, particularly throughout this past year, is the outreach part of what camps do best. Helping campers and staff deal with the tragedies of September 11 is an ongoing process that will change with the developments of the world. Just as the Pentagon was rebuilt, we too are striving to improve the lives of our campers by providing an atmosphere that is familiar, stable, and safe.
Greg Cronin, C.C.D., camp director, Congressional Day Camp
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Originally published in the 2003 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.