Huck Finn enjoyed a rare opportunity to attend his funeral and hear what folks had to say about him after he faked his death to escape the confines imposed by the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson — not to mention his abusive father, Pap. A recent near-death experience afforded me a similar chance to hear some feedback about my work with youth and families. Especially since it happened smack dab in the middle of the camp season.
There is no question that the deluge of cards, letters, e-mails, text messages, and Facebook posts provided an underpinning of support that helped keep my spirits high and recovery on track. That they comprised begrudging proof of an oft-repeated maxim of mine to decades of camp counselors took me by surprise.
Of all the mistakes you can make when working with kids, I like to say that none is more consequential than underestimating how important you will be to the youth in your charge. This may be especially the case if they are teenagers — for they often make it more difficult to spot your influence than typically do younger children (who often respond with hugs and no small amount of hanging on). The peril of such diminution of impact is that it leaves us prone to say and do things that may actually be harmful or hurtful. Sounds good, right? Only the purveyor of this particular pronouncement (me) didn't always heed his own advice. As the mom of one of my campers said in an e-mail response to my surprise at the outpouring of support, "Clearly, you haven't been paying attention."
Letters from My Campers
In two prior Camping Magazine articles, I used the pile of letters stocked away in a nearby file drawer as a device to convey to camp directors ("Part I: Letters from My Campers — A Director's Guide to Mentoring Youth," January/February 2008) and convince counselors ("Part II: Letters from My Campers: A Counselor's Guide to Mentoring Youth," May/June 2008) that informal mentors, such as those who work at camp, are enormously powerful forces in the lives of their mentees.
Let's review the evidence.
While parents clearly play an influential mentoring role in the lives of their children, it is also clear that other "significant" adults can, and do, affect important outcomes when it comes to education, social and emotional well-being, and health and safety. Mentoring: A Promising Strategy for Youth Development, a report by the research center Child Trends, concludes that adults other than parents can provide necessary emotional support, advice, and guidance while also helping to build self-esteem and self-control (Jekielek, Moore, Hair, & Scarupa, 2002). It also points out that, overall, young people who participate in mentoring relationships experience positive academic benefits, including better attendance and better attitudes toward school.
These mentoring relationships need not be formal. While "matched" mentorships have long been shown to enhance school performance, improve relationships with parents and peers, reduce initiation of drug and alcohol use, and decrease incidents of youth violence, a Teens Today (2001) study conducted by Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) found similarly encouraging results for young people with informal, or "natural," mentors, such as teachers. According to more than 3,000 middle and high school students, these adults are some of the most important, influential people in their lives. And that influence shows up in some pretty substantial ways. For example, 46 percent of teens with a mentor reported a high "sense of self," versus 25 percent of teens without a mentor. High sense of self teens feel more positive about their own identity, growing independence, and relationships with peers than do teens with a low sense of self. Not insignificantly, they are also more likely to avoid alcohol and drug use.
Campers Versus Non-Campers
As I have reported before, when we sort the data by those who report attending a summer camp versus those who say they have not, some interesting observations can be made. For example, young people who participated in camp are significantly more likely to report being highly mentored (37 percent versus 23 percent), taking positive risks (48 percent versus 30 percent), and having a high sense of self (53 percent versus 40 percent).
In addition, these young people are significantly less likely to say they:
- Drink alcohol (26 percent versus 36 percent)
- Drive after drinking alcohol (14 percent versus 23 percent)
- Smoke marijuana occasionally or more often (8 percent versus 18 percent)
- Have had sexual intercourse (29 percent versus 40 percent), oral sex (29 percent versus 39 percent), or engaged in other sexual behavior (19 percent versus 26 percent).
In the aggregate, young people who have not spent time at a summer camp are twice as likely as those who have to report that they are repeaters, as opposed to avoiders, of destructive behaviors (8 percent versus 16 percent).
The Other Classroom
President Obama's recent call for year-round schooling seems to fly in the face of growing evidence of the benefits of the summer camp experience for young people. What is that evidence?
Between 2001 and 2004, the American Camp Association (ACA; 2005) conducted research with more than 5,000 families from eighty ACA-accredited camps to determine the outcomes of the camp experience.
Parents, staff, and children reported significant growth in:
- Peer relationships
- Adventure and exploration
- Environmental awareness
- Friendship skills
- Values and decisions
- Social comfort
Camps, more than some other youth programs, provide positive developmental environments for youth, especially in providing supportive relationships with 23adults and peers and in skill building. While strengths vary by camp type and sponsor, all camps have the potential to provide positive experiences foundational to practicing successful life skills.
In addition, an independent research firm, Philliber Research Associates, conducted the largest study of camper outcomes in the US. That research found that 96 percent of children said that camp helped them make new friends, and 92 percent of children found the people at camp helped them feel good about themselves (ACA, 2005). These statistics are just part of the story: Camp provides children with the opportunity to connect with nature, to participate in human-powered activities, and to benefit from personal and primary relationships. Many young people who attend camp experience an increase in their self-esteem and are able to establish a true sense of independence apart from their families. And perhaps most directly to the point, camp is an element in a child's total development and complements the academic skills that are learned in school with experientially-based life skills.
Assets and Outcomes
"Assets" is a term commonly used in youth development literature and programs to reflect "positive and constructive relationships that promote healthy, responsible, and compatible choices" (Search Institute, 2001). Rather than approaching the needs of youth by utilizing a model based on changing problem behaviors, the "asset approach" recognizes the need to build positive assets in young people to help them make a healthy transition from adolescence to adulthood.
Search Institute (2001) has developed a framework of forty developmental assets appropriate to help youth grow up in a healthy, positive environment. And ACA has integrated those assets with important outcomes for children listed in the sidebar.
Letters from My Campers, Part I — The Value of Mentoring Youth
Youth mentoring has become a staple of the American landscape, growing exponentially through community and, increasingly, school-based programs designed to boost social and academic functioning. For example, according to School-Based Mentoring: A Closer Look, a report from Public/Private Ventures, a national nonprofit organization that seeks to improve the effectiveness of social policies and programs, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America's school-based matches grew from 27,000 in 1999 to 90,000 in 2002 — an increase of 233 percent. This explosion of mentoring programs has been accompanied by increasing efforts to systematically evaluate their effectiveness (Herrera, 2004).
What We Know
A review of available data on the impact and efficacy of youth mentoring points to evidence of its positive effects on youth. For example, mentoring has been shown to do the following:
- Enhance school performance
- Improve relationships with parents and peers
- Reduce initiation of drug and alcohol use
- Decrease incidents of youth violence
We also know that mentoring is closely linked with other important psychological/sociological constructs, such as youth development, resiliency, and risk and protective factors.
Important components of youth development include positive identity, social skills, physical and thinking skills, values, and spirituality. These are the cornerstones of the summer camp experience.
The resiliency movement has fostered the development of certain skills shown to be effective in helping youth deal successfully with adversity. According to Bonnie Benard (1991) in The Foundations of the Resiliency Framework: From Research to Practice, "Resiliency research documents the characteristics of family, school, and community environments that elicit and foster natural resiliency in children," altering or reversing potential negative outcomes. Personal resiliency builders include the ability to form positive relationships.
Tellingly, there is also evidence of the importance of caring friends and peers in school and community environments in the development of resiliency among youth.
Risk and Protective Factors
Identification of risk and protective factors has lent tremendous insight into under what circumstances young people are most likely to make choices that jeopardize their health and safety. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA; 2008), risk and protective factors can affect children at different stages of their lives. At each stage, risks occur that can be changed through prevention intervention provided by family, school, and community. An important protective factor cited by NIDA is the establishment of strong bonds with institutions.
Similarly, "Building Protection: The Social Development Strategy," published by Channing Bete Company, Inc. (2004), lists "Bonding — strong, attached relationships with adults who hold healthy beliefs and clear standards for young people" as a strategy for battling risk factors that relate to such problematic adolescent behaviors as alcohol and other drug use, delinquency, dropping out of school, becoming pregnant, and violence.
Formal Versus Informal Mentoring
Essentially, there are two types of mentoring: formal (or "planned") mentoring, which tends to be community and school-based programs where young people are matched with an adult or older student, and informal (or "natural") mentoring, reflected in relationships that occur outside of formal programs through friendship, collegiality, teaching, coaching, and counseling, for example.
While the preponderance of past research on the outcomes of youth mentoring have focused on formal programs, recent Teens Today research from SADD points to the enduring efficacy of mentoring.
Letters from My Campers, Part II — The Counselor's Role in Mentoring Youth
While accepting a job as a camp counselor may conjure up all types of images, from sailing and swimming by day to roasting marshmallows around a campfire at night (or, for some, perhaps scarier scenes involving short-sheeted beds or food fights in the mess hall), rarely do they include the ones that will ultimately prevail months from now when counselors think back on the time spent living with, teaching, and inspiring their campers. Those images will careen around their brains like flashes in a kaleidoscope, leaving behind indelible marks of caring camaraderie and life lessons learned in the most casual of ways — a pickup game, a walk on the beach, or a bedtime talk.
Perhaps it's time for us to frontload the download of feel-good stories so that they, too, can appreciate the enormity of the role they play and the young lives they reach and likely alter for good. After all, there's no time like the present.
No doubt, their orientation schedule makes exam week look like a cakewalk. Counselors are likely barraged with information about bedtimes, health checks, activity choices, safety concerns, homesickness, and communication with parents — important topics one and all, with many more to follow on day two. But imbued within all of these discussions should be an intractable link to the relationships — and responsibilities — that are part and parcel with the job of camp counselor.
Being a good role model may seem to be an obvious attribute of an accomplished camp counselor. But it may be easier said than done. After all, what exactly is a role model and how do you become one? According to Wikipedia, the term role model was introduced by sociologist Robert K. Merton. Merton said that individuals compare themselves to "reference groups" full of people who occupy the social role to which they themselves aspire. The term then passed into general use to mean any "person who serves as an example of a positive behavior." In short, it is quite likely that campers will aspire to be like their counselors — especially if they display the types of positive behavior that will bring reinforcement from other important figures in their lives, such as parents, teachers, coaches, and friends.
Dr. Ethan Shafer (2007) says, "Children do much of their learning by watching the important people in their lives. Referred to as 'observational learning' by social psychologists and cognitive scientists, most professionals who work with children simply refer to this process as role modeling. Role modeling, of course, is more than simply the act of mimicking adults by nearby children. Ask any camper about how the 'role models' presented by various media outlets (certain athletes and 'musicians' come to mind) influence their thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and assuming they are being honest, you will get an earful. More likely, you will see their influence reflected in campers' behavior in any number of ways. Whether campers are able or willing to put the impact into words, their role models create one of the lenses through which they view the world."
When I talk to our junior counselors about being a role model for younger children, I often invoke the following advice from author H. Jackson Brown (1995).
- Never compromise your integrity.
- Hug children after you discipline them.
- Tell your kids how terrific they are and that you trust them.
- Laugh a lot. A good sense of humor cures almost all of life's ills.
- Practice empathy. Try to see things from other people's points of view.
- Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know."
- Don't be afraid to say, "I made a mistake."
- Don't ever underestimate the power of words to heal.
- Don't be afraid to say, "I'm sorry."
- Learn to show cheerfulness, even when you don't feel like it.
Because of Camp
But the data tell only part of the story. Even more compelling evidence can be found in the stories of those who benefited from their time at camp. Indeed, in announcing ACA's May 2009 launch of the Because of Camp . . . ® campaign, CEO Peg Smith (ACA, 2009) said, "The benefits of camp extend further than just childhood development. Camp, and the experiences of camp, define us, even as adults. Camp has changed many lives, introduced people to new passions, and broadened horizons."
The well-known people who speak on behalf of the campaign make those points very well.
So what is it that kids say?
At camp I found a role model who helped me become a role model myself. He was a person I could look up to and seek advice from. He helped me grow as a leader, as a role model, and as an individual. He praised my achievements, helped me learn from my failures, and day in and day out he put a smile on my face. In a world of such chaotic times, this individual helped me stay on the right path toward upward achievement. He also taught me how to be a role model among the younger kids. He taught me to be stern at times of necessity, fun at evening activity, and overall a person people could come to with problems of homesickness, etc. It's hard to be a leader, but I am glad I had someone to guide me on a path to be such a successful one. The most important thing I learned is to be a good role model you don't need to try extra hard; you simply need to make good choices and the results will be extraordinary.
— Kevin, age seventeen
My camp counselor was a junior counselor when I was ten. Every year she helped me in activities, especially archery. I saw her every year, and even though she was not my counselor, she looked after me and gave me someone to look up to. So when I came to camp this past summer, I was ecstatic to find that she would actually be my counselor. I talked to her almost every night. When I was having a problem, she would sit down, stop whatever she was doing and help me through it, giving the best advice I could ask for. And she's still there for me when I need someone to talk to or anything.
— Nancy, age fifteen
Letters From My Campers, Part III — After the Deluge
The hundreds (or more) cards, letters, calls, e-mails, and text and Facebook messages I received during my recovery certainly contained proof of the efficacy of my service. But, moreover, they pointed to the incredibly powerful role that our camp, specifically our teen leadership program, has played in shaping their lives and preparing them for the future. Those communications, and others, paint a very compelling argument against year-round schools.
Camp has prepared me for college because it has repeatedly given me the opportunity to make new friends and deal (read: live) with a varied group of people. Camp has engendered in me a new sense of responsibility. Living with the younger campers helped teach me that it is not always about me, but about what I can do for others. Camp has also taught me to live away from my parents — I have gained independence and confidence from my years at camp. I also hope to bring to college the program's motto of "Work hard, play hard."
— Jason, age seventeen
I can't even begin to explain how much the program means to me. Primarily, it means family and togetherness. After that comes leadership. I don't think anybody can truly be a strong leader without a strong support system to keep them going. And that's exactly what the program is.
— Julie, age fifteen
To me, the program presents the chance to free myself from childhood and take steps into adulthood. I can become a more influential person in society through teaching and being a role model.
— Adam, age fourteen
Over the past four years, I have gained knowledge I normally would not be able to experience elsewhere. I have made lifelong friends, learned how to accept others, and have gained so much confidence. The opportunities offered at camp are unique and special. Camp has helped me to grow as a person.
— Tara, age seventeen
To me, the program means leadership and honesty, friendship and community. I think it means leadership because it trains teenagers to take control and be a leader and not a follower. It means honesty because you shouldn't steal or lie to your friends. It's where new friendships are formed.
— Greg, age fifteen
Because of Camp . . .® so much is possible.
A note about Teens Today Study Methodology: The Teens Today 2006 study involved both qualitative and quantitative phases. The study was initiated with a series of twelve focus groups held in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and St. Louis, conducted on successive evenings March 13–15, 2006. The study also included a series of in-depth interviews (IDIs) with teens in Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and St. Louis. The results of the focus groups were used to instruct development of the quantitative research, a self-administered survey conducted at forty schools across the nation. The study involved a weighted total of 3,312 students overall to reflect a proportionate distribution of high school and middle school teens. The survey was administered in May and June 2006.
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ACA. (2005). Directions: Youth development outcomes of the camp experience. Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/research/enhance/directions 
ACA. (2009). Celebrity campers share the importance of the camp experience. Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/media-center/press/090504 
Bell, Carl, M.D. (2001). Cultivating resiliency in youth. The Society for Adolescent Medicine. Journal of Adolescent Health, 29(5), 375–381.
Benard, B. (1998). Fostering resiliency in kids: Protective factors in the family, schools, and community. Retrieved from www.cce.umn.edu/pdfs/NRRC/Fostering_Resilience_012804.pdf 
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Channing Bete Company, Inc. (2004). Building protection: The social development strategy. Retrieved from www.channing-bete.com 
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Henderson, N. (2003). Fostering resiliency in children and youth: Four basic steps for families, educators, and other caring adults. Retrieved from http://ns1.integrastrategic.com/userfiles/files/HendersonResiliencyAdolescents.pdf  (1 Feb. 2008).
Herrera, Carla. (2004). School-based mentoring: A closer look. Retrieved from www.ppv.org/ppv/publication.asp?search_id=20&publication_id=180§ion_id=0 
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Jekielek, S. M., Moore, K. A., Hair, E. C., & Scarupa, H. J. (2002). Mentoring: A promising strategy for youth development. Child Trends. Retrieved from www.childtrends.org/Files/MentoringBrief2002.pdf 
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2006). Preventing drug abuse among children and adolescents: Risk factors and protective factors. Retrieved from www.drugabuse.gov/prevention/risk.html 
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Olson, S. (2004). Who is a good leader? Retrieved from www.generativeconsulting.com 
Pastore, M. (1996). Dynamite counselors don't explode: A complete survival course for child-care workers and camp counselors. Ithaca, NY: Zorba Press.
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Schafer, Ethan, Ph.D. (2007). Training counselors to be role models: The basics and beyond. Camping Magazine, 80(6).
Teens Today. (2001). Families: Guidelines for good family communication. SADD and Liberty Mutual Group. Boston: December 2001.
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Stephen Wallace, M.S. Ed., author of the book Reality Gap: Alcohol, Drugs, and Sex — What Parents Don't Know and Teens Aren't Telling, has broad experience as a school psychologist and motivational speaker. He serves as chairman and CEO of SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at the Cape Cod Sea Camps, and adjunct professor of psychology at Mount Ida College. For more information about Wallace's work, visit www.stephengraywallace.com .
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