It’s another blisteringly hot day at Camp John Marc in Bosque County, Texas, and the van doors are slamming shut as twenty young men pile in for the short trip over to the little town of Morgan. In a few minutes, the young men will burst out of the vans at the small Baptist church in Morgan, equipped with games, toys, snacks, and crafts in hand. Kids from around the town will shortly begin appearing from nowhere, arriving by bike, on foot, and getting dropped off by parents. The only day camp that this town has ever seen is about to begin.
All twenty of the young men leading the day camp are between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, and all of them were handpicked to participate in Camp Ailihpomeh’s leadership program. Ailihpomeh (that’s hemophilia spelled backward, pronounced Al-ih-poh-mah), is one of eleven groups that comes each summer to Camp John Marc, which serves campers with chronic illnesses and special needs. Each of these leaders has hemophilia, but they are being challenged to look past their own diagnoses to serve this small community as a part of their camp experience.
The Morgan Summer Fun Program allows these twenty campers to travel offsite for a half-day each day they are at camp. When they arrive in Morgan, they are responsible for pairing up with the children of the town as “buddies” and leading camp games and activities for an hour and a half, so that for the first time all summer, the kids of Morgan have something new to do. The day camp only lasts Monday through Thursday, and the leadership guys are only in Morgan for the morning, so they really pack in the fun with smile-inducing activities. On the final day of the program, Morgan Independent School District lends the program a bus and driver, and everyone (including the children from the town) heads back to Camp John Marc where they enjoy swim time in the camp’s huge pool, followed by a delicious picnic lunch.
You may be asking, how and why was this unique program established? I would like to answer those questions and illustrate a model that your camp could use to implement a similar community-andcamp service.
The development of leadership skills is the goal of countless camp programs. At Camp Ailihpomeh, the Leadership Program’s director, Ed Kuebler, was beginning to feel like the program’s needs were outgrowing traditional teambuilding activities that Camp John Marc was offering. A veteran director of this leadership program, Ed wanted to instill a sense of social responsibility in the leadership campers, but until 2009, they had been limited to Camp John Marc’s site. So Ailihpomeh’s directors sat down with Camp John Marc’s staff, and together they forged a bold concept — taking the leadership campers off site to organize community service.
Morgan is a community of less than 500 residents and is just up the road from Camp John Marc. Gary Orfield, a long-time resident of the town and volunteer for the Morgan program, estimates that at least half of the town lives at or below the poverty line. Candice Richey, the former youth minister at the church where the program is held, helped get the program up and running. Having worked in the town for nearly two years, she observed that kids during the summer spent their time riding bikes and wandering around town, looking for anything interesting to do. If camp came into the town and provided some sort of organized activity for the children, even if for just a few hours, it would fulfill at least two critical needs: First, the children would be provided unique activities and structure. Second, the leadership campers from Camp Ailihpomeh would be given an opportunity to be positive role models for the kids and serve this small community.
Before the program ever began, Camp John Marc staff sat down with leadership from Camp Ailihpomeh, Morgan First Baptist Church, and Morgan ISD. Collaboration from the camp and the community was needed to make this program successful. There were many things to consider: getting the campers to and from the town, location for the program, liability, and transporting youth from the town to and from camp for swim time on the last day.
Establish the Need
Would the kids of the town be interested in a day camp? Candice Richey ran the only youth group in town, and she had a pretty good pulse on what the kids were up to day-in and day-out. She felt confident that kids would enjoy a structured program and it would help them feel “connected, wanted, and loved.”
Would this actually provide Ailihpomeh campers with opportunities to exercise social responsibility and leadership? Given that the Ailihpomeh campers were ages fifteen to seventeen, it would not have made much sense to pair them with kids from the town who were the same age or older. After setting the age range at six to fourteen, adult leaders of the leadership program agreed that there was no substitute for giving the campers responsibility for planning the program, experiencing a place that would appreciate their help, and pushing them to be examples for younger kids.
Camp John Marc is run by a board of directors, and before anything could be created, they had to approve the project. Camp John Marc’s executive director, Vance Gilmore, handled this aspect. Understanding the need for the program and its potential, he was able to explain the vision that would involve safely taking campers off site to do community service.
With board approval, we turned our attention to the nuts and bolts — a schedule. This schedule needed to allow the leadership group to go off site between breakfast and lunch with a group of adults who would drive. Every camp’s schedule is different, so think about how you would make a program like this fit into your camp’s framework.
Our schedule for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of the day camp was:
9:15 a.m. — Ailihpomeh group departs camp for Morgan First Baptist Church
9:45 a.m. — Arrive and set up
10:00–11:30 a.m. — Kids arrive and program begins (on Monday, buddies assigned for week)
11:30 a.m. — Wrap up, snacks, pack up, and depart
12:00 p.m. — Ailihpomeh group arrives back at Camp John Marc in time for lunch
Because Thursday was the designated day to pick the kids up and take them to camp for swimming and lunch, the schedule was slightly different:
9:15 a.m. — Ailihpomeh leadership departs camp for Morgan First Baptist Church
9:45 a.m. — Bus/transport arrives; meet and greet kids; find your buddy and ride to camp with them on the bus together
10:00–11:15 a.m. — Kids arrive at camp and have free swim
11:15 a.m. — Dry off and get ready for lunch
11:45 a.m. — Kids and Ailihpomeh leadership buddy up and eat lunch at camp in dining hall or at picnic tables
12:30 p.m. — Kids depart for Morgan on bus
12:45–1:00 p.m. — Parent pick-up
1:00–2:00 p.m. — Ailihpomeh leadership does wrap up at camp and processes week
In order for a program like this to be a success, everyone has to be on board and contribute. There were several problems we had to solve:
Camp doesn’t own property in Morgan, so where would the program be held?
This is where being an involved member of the community comes in handy. Over Camp John Marc’s twenty-year history, it’s developed close relationships with locals from nearby towns, and Gary Orfield was an involved member of the Morgan community. Through him, the town’s Baptist church offered use of its facility and we met Candice Richey, the youth minister. A retiree, Gary agreed to come and be a part of the program each day at the church and serve as the host, opening the building and helping to get kids there and back home.
How do you get parents and kids in the community to participate?
Candice proved invaluable in getting kids to come by communicating with them and their parents about the program, since she already had those relationships. The town is very small, so Ailihpomeh created flyers to be passed around to all of the families in town with children in the age range.
How do you transport twenty-four Ailihpomeh campers to Morgan and back from camp each day?
Camp Ailihpomeh agreed to handle this logistic, and we rented two twelve-passenger vans to transport the leadership group. Ailihpomeh created its own transportation policy to comply with ACA transportation standards and even had a couple of counselors follow the caravan in their personal vehicles each day as a part of the plan.
How do you transport everyone, including the town children, to camp on Thursday for the swim day?
Camp John Marc essentially cold-called the local school district, Morgan ISD, and asked the superintendent if the school district would be willing to support the program by providing a school bus and a driver for the day on Thursday. They agreed and have upheld this commitment for three years!
Who supplies the snacks, sports, games, and crafts supplies for the program?
Camp John Marc was best-equipped to lend the program sports and games supplies for the week, but Camp Ailihpomeh supplied arts and crafts supplies that they were already bringing for the younger children at camp that week. A long-time volunteer of Ailihpomeh led these activities each day. Snacks were brought by Ailihpomeh, which had received them as donations, and at the end of the week, all extra snacks were sent home with the children.
How do you get past liability issues and gain permission from parents?
Camp John Marc consulted with its general counsel on this issue and came up with several precautions. First, an easy-to-read cover letter and waiver was designed to go out to all of the parents. Children wishing to participate would need to get this signed first. Second, Ailihpomeh generously offered to let one of its nurses (as a hemophilia camp, they brought several) come out each day to be on site for the program. Third, Ailihpomeh’s Ed Kuebler, who was responsible for registering campers for his leadership program, obtained permission from campers’ parents to take his campers off site for the program while at camp. Finally, the program was run like any other camp activity that would have taken place on site. Guidelines were established, roll call was taken, and the same process safety guidelines as any other camp activity were used to run the Morgan program.
What activities do the kids do?
When a child from the town arrives for the first time, he or she is immediately paired with a buddy — one of the leadership campers. There is a mix between free time to play with sports equipment and a few structured activities, like water balloons, tug-of-war, basketball, and kickball, that all take place on the church’s lawn. Also, arts and crafts are available throughout the program inside the church. At the close of the first day, a snack is served and buddies introduce each other to the group while even sharing a little bit about their diagnoses of hemophilia to the children of the town. Snacks are served each day.
To improve upon the quality of the program year after year, those involved discuss what worked and what didn’t work. One thing we learned from this process was the importance of making the parental permission process as easy as possible. Morgan is somewhat of a sleepy town, and children roam the streets without much, if any, parental supervision. Literacy is low, so complex text in the waiver would not work. Many parents work during the day, and older siblings are caring for younger ones. Without any sort of a “registration” process, kids would just show up. It’s important that the children who participate have signed permission from their parents or guardians and that they have supplied full contact information. Gathering feedback from the church, the school, the kids, and the parents is a crucial part of polishing the program.
How many of you work for camps in rural communities? How is your camp serving the small town just up the road?
The reality is that there is a win-win here for any camp willing to take this challenge. A day camp like the Morgan Summer Fun Program can simultaneously provide local children with diversion and enjoyment while also instilling responsibility and character-building into older campers. The secret to our leadership campers’ commitment was empowerment. Empower them to be buddies. Give them ownership of the activities and the service that’s provided. Then, step back and let them lead.
When you look at what is being done with the Morgan program, there are some remarkable revelations. Although the children are attending the program for only about an hour and a half for each of four days, more is happening than can be easily quantified. The children are meeting new friends — leaders-to-be — who are setting an example of kindness and acceptance; they are having a blast doing activities that otherwise would not be organized; the special camp up the road from their town is letting them use the awesome pool; and an unlikely group of community members and volunteers are coming together to create something larger than themselves.
We challenge you to do the same.
David Aycock worked as an assistant camp director for Camp John Marc in Meridian, Texas, from 2007 to 2011 and is currently traveling the world for a year through twenty-seven countries on four continents. Connect with the author and follow his travels at www.global-encounter.com .