Thousands of young adults work in organized camps each year. Often directors focus on the good that camp does kids, but a significant component may also be the good that camp does staff. Young people choose this summer opportunity for a variety of reasons related to their personal and professional interests. Although these young people are often idealistic and altruistic, they also expect to gain benefits from these camp jobs. If directors better understand the positive outcomes sought by young people, they may be able to recruit more qualified and committed staff for these work experiences.
With these issues in mind, the Association of Independent Camps (AIC) funded systematic research to analyze the perceived benefits associated with summer camp staff experiences. The concept of benefit was not used in an economic sense in this study. Rather, a benefit was defined as "a change that is viewed to be advantageous — an improvement in condition or gain to an individual" (Driver, Brown, and Peterson, 1991). The purpose of this study was to see how camp staff, themselves, perceived their camp experiences.
The goal of the study was to understand counselors’ perceptions about the camp staff experience as expressed in their own words. Therefore, data for this project were obtained from focus groups. This group technique allowed for group interaction and greater insight into why certain opinions were held. The technique is particularly appropriate to use when the goal is to explain how people regard an experience, idea, or event. The result is information that can improve the planning and design of new programs, evaluate existing programs, and provide insights into the development of marketing strategies (Krueger, 1988).
The focus groups for this study were conducted primarily on college campuses. The only criterion for inclusion in the study was that the individual had worked at camp as a staff person (but not as an intern) for at least one season. A total of fifty-two individuals were involved in the interview process in ten separate focus groups. All but six of the participants were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two years old, and no one was older than twenty-seven or younger than eighteen years. The participants had been staff members at day and resident agency camps, religiously affiliated camps, and independent camps located in eight different states. Their positions ranged from first-year counselors to administrative program staff.
The general procedure followed in the interview process was to introduce the question and then let the group members discuss their opinions until they had expressed all their views. If points were vague, the interviewer probed further to clarify the statement or to gain further explanations and discussion of related points.
Analysis of the group interviews revealed a number of positive personal and professional outcomes. These outcomes focused on relationships with other staff and campers, appreciation of diversity, interpersonal skills, group cohesion, leadership and responsibilities, role modeling/mentoring, technical skill development, personal growth, administrative skills, and teamwork.
These bonds of friendship extended to the campers with whom the staff worked. The staff interviewed often talked about the importance of the interaction with the campers and having an opportunity to observe and influence the positive development of a child. Several staff commented on the challenge of finding a balance between being a friend and being the responsible adult who needed to set and enforce rules and boundaries. One statement made was "I had to be the mom and the disciplinarian and the boo-boo fixer."
For many staff this relationship raised their awareness of social issues that influenced the lives of their campers. A staff member said the value of camp was "giving the kids a week of just fun and something to keep them going because a lot of things in society today bring them down." Counselors commented on the difficult lives led by some of their campers and their desire to make a difference in the children’s lives, even if only for a brief time. One staff member said, "If you give them a half hour, they will remember you the rest of their lives."
Appreciation of diversity
Some of the staff talked about the benefits of having a "large socioeconomic draw" among their staff and campers. Others commented on the value of just being exposed to people different from themselves. One staff member said, "I got a chance to work with all these different people that I would have never met outside of camp." Working with international staff was also an opportunity that gave some young adults the opportunity "to see a new aspect of different parts of the world."
Leadership and responsibilities
Many of the staff talked about the sense of responsibility relative to the lives of their campers and their own development of judgment. One staff member said, "It is very important that you are good at what you do because these kids’ lives are in your hands." Staff saw these benefits as having important carryover into other aspects of their personal and professional development.
Technical skill development
In addition, the camp experience also provided a way to enhance recreation skills that staff perceived they could draw on throughout their lives. One staff member said, "It’s experiencing things that I have never experienced before, like camp outs, water rafting, rock climbing. You can be a counselor and still be learning these things."
Almost all of the staff commented on the positive carryover of interpersonal skills to future job possibilities. Related to problem solving and innovative thinking, statements were made such as:
Negative External Forces
During the course of the focus groups, staff identified seven external forces that impinged upon the potential benefits of working as a camp staff member. These negative influences centered on: dealing with diversity, low wages, lack of time for self, negative perceptions of influential others, frustration with campers, cliques, and lack of director support.
Some members of the focus groups believed their experiences were shaped by the ways that the three critical components — camp philosophy, staff training, and staff support — were enacted to provide a positive or negative camp foundation. For example, when talking about the importance of the camp philosophy, a staff member commented, "The philosophy behind the camp is more important than the activities."
Staff also mentioned the importance of staff training as evidenced by the following comments:
Director support was a critical component for staff to have a successful experience. When it did not exist, it was a major external factor. Two illustrative comments were:
These quotes showed the types of frustrations and challenges faced by camp staff when working in a camp environment. These negative aspects are red flags for camp administrators who are interested in providing the optimal setting to promote the benefits of working at camp. The more these negative forces can be minimized or eliminated, the more likely the staff will perceive personal and professional benefits from their camp job experiences.
Putting It All Together
This analysis describes the breadth of the benefits perceived by the staff interviewed in the focus groups. Many of the themes were connected and influenced by opinions and perceptions that overlapped. As described in the interviews, the staff found the experience of working at camp to be rewarding and beneficial in personal and professional ways.
Although critical components were central to the work experience of the staff and they recognized the influence of external factors, these staff were highly committed to their jobs in camp and were able to articulate easily the benefits that they perceived from the experience. Self-interest was a key reason why these individuals chose to work at camp. In the process of doing good for campers, staff were also aware that they were helping themselves in many ways.
Using This Information
Based on these findings, a number of recommendations may be offered for camp directors in all types of camps. First, the positive outcomes of being a summer camp staff employee must be reinforced by camp directors in recruiting as well as in supervising staff. The transferability of personal and professional skills gained at camp should be a part of the debriefing of camp staff.
Have staff share their experience with others
Determine what counselors hope to gain from the experience
Place emphasis on how camp is good for young adults. Many of the benefits of other social programs may be similar to the camp experience, and these connections should be emphasized.
Work with parents
Finally, mitigating the negative perceptions of working at a camp job is an ongoing task of the profession. The camp experience may be more beneficial if camp directors consider improving some of the working conditions by allowing more time off and trying to raise staff salaries. In addition, the support given through training and daily contact with staff may be invaluable as these young people work toward their own personal and professional development. By giving staff a world of good through camp employment, campers’ worlds may also be enhanced, as well as the greater societal good.
M. Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Karla A. Henderson, Ph.D., is professor and chair at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Kate Dahowski is a graduate assistant working on a master of science in recreation administration at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The data collected for this article were contracted through the Association for Independent Camps’ focus on examining staff issues in camps.
Driver, Beverly L., and Perry J. Brown and George L. Peterson. Benefits of Leisure. State College, PA: Venture Publishing, 1991.
Henderson, Karla A. "Better Positioning Those Camp Jobs," Camping Magazine (March/April 1989): 34-37.
Krueger, Richard A. Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1988.
Napier, T.L., and E.G. Bryant. (1980) "Attitudes toward Outdoor Recreation Development: An Application of Social Exchange Theory," Leisure Sciences 3(2): 169-187.
Originally published in the 1998 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.