Remember your parents always reminding you to write thank you notes after birthdays and other holidays when you were on the receiving end of a gift? My guess is that it probably was not your favorite thing to do, but you did it anyway. So, it may take you by surprise if you are asked to write similar notes to the parents/guardians* of the campers in your care this summer. You see, the campers you will get to know over the course of the upcoming weeks are on loan from their parents (you have to give them back!), and they are the most important and special gifts you can ever receive. When parents send their children to camp, they are putting their trust in YOU to take care of that which is most valuable to them. So, don’t you think the least you could do is take the time to say thank you?
Even though many parents can see photos of their child online while he or she is at camp, and they may receive the occasional letter from their camper if away at resident camp or even talk with their camper at night if attending day camp, there is no substitute for the words that only you can share with parents as the counselor of their child. You will have the best vantage point to let them know how their child is adjusting, fitting in with the group, and progressing with new skills learned during activities — not to mention what fun they are having while at camp. Parents value what you say because of how amazing it is to hear what is unique and special about their child from someone who, up until this summer, was most likely a stranger. Your gift in return to the parents will be the time and thought you put into writing a detailed account of their child’s camp experience via postcard, letter, e-mail, or other form of correspondence as a way to say thank you. You might be interested to know that parents greatly appreciate and treasure these letters, and many are kept as mementos for years to come!
Do Your Homework
This article will take you through the progression of steps from start to finish that will help you communicate effectively with the parents of your campers. As you will soon discover, camp days are busy, and in order to assist you with writing quality reports, the time spent before sitting down to write the actual correspondence will make the process easier on you. Keeping a daily journal or log is a great way to capture specific moments that will later be the details you can weave into a letter or note to a parent. Challenge yourself to observe and write a detailed entry about each camper every day. You can do this by paying close attention to interactions and conversations throughout the day while campers are in your direct supervision during group routines (Emilie pitched in to help her cabin mate finish sweeping), activities (Chase demonstrated sportsmanship when his soccer team lost the game by talking positively about what each player did well), and other camp events (Lindy included a new camper when planning a skit for campfire).
You will also have the opportunity to indirectly gain this insight through the questions you ask to find out about the particulars of each camper’s day, including their favorite camp activities, what they are looking forward to most, goals they are working to achieve, etc. A good practice to follow, regardless of whether you are expected to communicate with parents, is to periodically have a dialogue with each individual camper as a way to check in and find out more about his or her successes and concerns. Having conversations with campers that delve beyond the “what” (what is your favorite activity?) and into the “why” (what about arts and crafts class made it special?) will give you the kind of specific information that will make the difference between a superb parent letter and a mediocre one.
Doing your “homework” before sitting down to formally put words on paper will pay huge dividends in the long run. In addition to using the daily comments you are recording on each camper, your staff colleagues are a great resource that should not be overlooked. Most of you will be working with at least one other staff member as co-leaders of a camper group or when teaching or assisting with various camp activities. Finding time to get together with these staff members will allow you the opportunity to compare notes and share information that will help fill in some of the missing pieces when trying to paint a complete picture of each camper’s experience. The ultimate goal to strive for is to demonstrate to the parents that you know and understand their child beyond the surface level. Parents know their children well; how cool is it if another caring adult does, too?
The type of written correspondence that you use to communicate to camper parents will vary by camp (letter, postcard, e-mail, online form); however, there are a few general guidelines that will be true across the board whether you handwrite a note or use some form of technology.
Following these basics from your first drafts to your final letters will save time during the editing process when your head counselors and supervisors review.
- Use correct spelling (pay particular attention to the word “counselor”) and grammar.
- Write using complete sentences, and avoid the shorthand and abbreviations you may be accustomed to when sending text messages, tweets, or other social media.
- Ask a friend to proofread your letters before passing them on to the next level.
- Avoid using words that depict a specific time such as “yesterday” or “tomorrow” so as not to date your letter.
- Stay clear of terms that express doubt or uncertainty (may, seems, hopes, etc.) as well as those that pass judgment, evaluate, or attempt to diagnose (Bailey should see a therapist; Isaac has ADHD).
- Highlighting the small details of campers’ experiences will help parents place confidence in both you and the camp, and it brings to light the positive influence that camp is having on their child.
A general format to follow when writing correspondence of any length to camper parents is to break it down into three main parts: the greeting, body, and closing.
A universal way to address families is to say, “Greetings from Camp Cliff Rock!” You will want to refer to parents using the appropriate title “Mr. and Mrs.” versus use of first names; your specific camp will provide you with this information. It is appropriate to mention any reference to meeting the parents if you had the opportunity on opening day or at another time during the session (It was so nice to meet you when you brought Brayden to camp). This may also be the point when you give a brief introduction of yourself (hometown, school, major, number of years at camp, what you do at camp, etc.).
This is where you provide specific, personalized information regarding each camper. It is not your job to be analytical, but rather to impart insight into each child based on your interactions, observations, and conversations. This is a great time to grab your notebook with daily entries about each camper to help you with specifics and anecdotes on experiences within the group, friendships formed, activity choices/goals/progress/ achievements, health and behavior, participation in special camp events or programs, etc. (Depending on how many years a child has been coming to this particular camp, you may need to include a brief description or explanation of any “camp lingo” that is used in your letter so that the reader has a point of reference).
End the letter by giving the parents a heartfelt “THANK YOU” for sharing their child by sending him or her to camp this summer. You may want to include upcoming events to which the camper is looking forward or articulate a positive, unique quality that you have observed in him or her (enthusiasm, helpfulness, patience, persistence, confidence, team player, etc.). Kind words that are genuine and truthful will go a long way!
It is important to remember that parents know their child and can detect your honesty and sincerity. Parents (and campers) often compare letters and will recognize a “form” letter in which the main points are the same but the name has been changed. This is especially true if there are multiple children from the same family attending the same camp. Be creative and original and take the opportunity to make each letter special and distinctive for each camper.
The timing of getting the final letter ready for parent viewing will ultimately depend on the length of each camp session. For shorter sessions of one or two weeks in length, the turnaround time will be quick so that correspondence can make it home before the camper does (or at least with the camper on closing day). It will be critical that you are making and recording observations starting the very first day campers arrive!
For campers who are attending a longer camp session, you may be asked to communicate with the parents on more continued on page 66 than one occasion. In this instance, you will want to distinguish each letter so that they are different and not repetitive in nature. The first letter home will most likely focus on the camper’s adjustment to camp. Here you can mention how each camper is (if appropriate) fitting in with the group, making friends, having a good time, demonstrating consideration for others, having a positive attitude, etc. A subsequent letter can then concentrate on the camper’s growth over the period of time spent at camp. This correspondence could include suitable remarks on friendships formed, an increase in self-confidence, achievements made in various activities, and progress in becoming more independent, just to give a few examples.
It would not be realistic to think that every camper letter will be “all roses” and have a “happy ending.” It is important not to “gloss over” a challenging situation. If there is a problem, explain how you are working together to improve. Parents need an honest assessment of how their child is doing at camp, but sometimes this can be best handled by a phone call first from a supervisor or director. In this case, you can refer to the specific situation and any progress being made or follow-up to be done in your written communication with the parents. It is essential to know that any time you are unsure of how to handle a difficult issue, the best course of action is to seek advice or help from a camp leader right away — don’t wait! Challenging campers often help us “dig deeper” and search beyond the surface in order to discover their good qualities — how wonderful to be able to communicate that accomplishment to the parents!
Edit and Revise
It is also important to remember that part of the writing process includes opportunities to edit and revise — it will be rare that a letter will be “perfect” on the first try. Know that you will be asked to make corrections or to add more detail to your comments before reaching the “final form” status. By doing the best job you can on the initial draft, you will save yourself and others time on the back end. Take pride in the work you do! The information that you impart can be extremely helpful to head counselors/directors (gives a “pulse” on the overall camp experience for each child) and program staff (provides insight into favorite activities and special events). In some cases, letters will be shared with pastors and other community members who will follow up with campers once the session has ended.
How can you add pizazz to the story you are telling about each camper’s experience? Here are suggestions for positive adjectives, power verbs, and example statements that may help you get the creative juices flowing. Have fun with the words you choose and encourage your fellow staff members to create a word bank of “strength words” for all to use.
Examples of statements concerning a camper’s strengths:
Examples of encouraging comments when a camper is making progress: