In the early 2000s, at one of ACA’s national conferences, Bonnie and Sam Dawson were discussing with several other camp directors ways of improving programs and increasing enrollment at Camp Alleghany, a residential tent camp for girls located in Lewisburg, West Virginia. One idea being considered was adding a “Mini Camp” — a one-week session to introduce younger children to sleep-away camp. While the details of how these programs worked were yet to be ironed out, Beth Anne Clark-Thomas (an alumna) had previously pitched the idea of Mini Camp, and camp administrators thought it sounded like something worth trying. After a little research into how others worked their Mini Camps, Camp Alleghany began with the questions: When? Who? Where? How?
The Camp Alleghany schedule at that time included five days of precamp informational meetings for staff, two three-and-one-half-week camper sessions, and twelve days of family camp. With school systems running well into June and colleges beginning mid-August, two things became clear: Because our family camp occurred at the end of our sessions, putting the Mini Camp before the other sessions was most practical. Plus, we had to shorten all of the session lengths to make time to accommodate a weeklong Mini Camp.
The summer before we instituted Mini Camp, we shortened our summer sessions to three weeks and family camp to eight days. We also wanted to assure our veteran counselors that we could still accommodate all of our camp’s special events within the shorter time frame without sacrificing any of our beloved traditions due to time restraints.
We now run five uninterrupted days of staff training, followed by seven days of Mini Camp, within which our staff training continues. (See the following Who section for more information on how we use volunteer alumnae to make this possible.) When counselors are not teaching their activities, they are in training sessions. We also give the activity heads time during Mini Camp to critique their staff members to help them improve their teaching techniques for that activity.
Elizabeth Shreckhise, assistant director and daughter of Sam and Bonnie, has developed a fantastic staff training program. It includes nearly everything possible: how to be a counselor, how to organize and teach your specialty, a review of the online training each counselor is required to complete, and many items unique to Alleghany. Elizabeth supervises all of this, and with the help of our head counselors and administrative team members, we have a dynamic program that is easily adaptable year to year.
Mini Camp is followed by our two three-week sessions — and we end with eight days of family camp. (Note: Many camps with shorter regular-length sessions also have shorter Mini Camps, e.g. two- or three-day Mini Camp sessions.)
We decided that only girls ages seven to eleven who had never been to any sleep-away camp before would be accepted for Mini Camp. We also stipulated that this was a one-time offer. Other than the seven- or eight-year-olds, none of the Mini Camp campers could repeat Mini Camp. The goal was to introduce them to camp, not provide an alternative to our regular sessions. Through the mini experience, girls decide if they want to give the three-week session a chance; a second time in Mini Camp seems unnecessary for the girls over eight.
Besides defining who the campers would be, we also had to decide who would staff the Mini Camp. We knew the program staff we already had would be fine conducting the activities. But because staff training continued during Mini Camp, we also knew we needed to find someone else to manage the other components, such as tent, meal, nighttime duties, and evening activities. Otherwise, our training program would suffer. That’s why we reached out to volunteer alumnae.
Alleghany, like many other camps, is blessed with a host of alumnae who would love to spend the entire summer with us. The reality of outside jobs and families prevents this. But we did wonder if former Alleghany counselors, who would already be well-versed in the traditions and rules of Camp Alleghany, would be able to give us a week and take charge of the Mini Camp campers for all times except the four activity periods. Being more mature and experienced, these women could not only help the campers adjust to being away from home but also model for and give advice to our younger counselors. Our alumnae have jumped at the chance to be part of this program; ever since our initial call out to alumnae, there has consistently been a waiting list for the chance to be a Mini Camp counselor. The alumnae counselors have added a richness and depth to both Mini Camp programming and our counselor training time.
As far as training for the alumnae counselors is concerned, our Mini Camp director conducts a yearlong hybrid model, which includes electronic communications through the off season, a face-to-face midwinter retreat, and on-site training the day before Mini Camp campers arrive. This includes, but is not limited to, reviewing all safety regulations and any new rules or schedule changes. Also, our entire staff — including our alumnae Mini Camp counselors — is screened according to the standard requirements of ACA.
This part was easy. We would house Mini Camp in our junior camp tent units. Our first summer of Mini Camp, we housed the junior camp counselors in junior camp as well. As Mini Camp grew, however, we moved all our counselors into the senior camp tents until Mini Camp concluded. Because Mini Camp campers number less than half of our regular-term enrollment, we utilize only one floor of the dining hall. This enables ongoing setup preparations for summer as well as some staff training sessions to be held in the other dining hall.
We offer ten activities during our three-week sessions, but quickly realized we would need to modify our typical daily schedule to even have enough Mini Camp campers in each activity. We decided to split them and have five activities in the morning and five in the afternoon. This has proven effective for scheduling, while it also allows for the continuity of our staff training time. Additionally, our summer session staff have benefited greatly from teaching classes for only a portion of the day, then having time to reflect, troubleshoot, and strengthen plans for the teaching they will soon engage in all day long.
Mini Camp campers select their own four classes, with a staff member helping the little girls, after each department presents a brief skit about the activities on opening night. With the entire staff available, questions or class conflicts can be quickly addressed. This is also how we have campers select activities in our full-session camp.
Mini Camp Planning Considerations
Putting It All Together
All of this planning, however, hinged on finding the right person to be the director of Mini Camp. We needed someone who was well organized with lots of enthusiasm and who could make it a fun week for the campers and staff. She also needed to have the time to take this on and be an alumna so she had knowledge of the Alleghany traditions and a strong love of Alleghany. We were fortunate to find someone who fit all of these requirements and also holds a doctorate in early childhood education. And when we asked her, she said “yes”!
We gave our Mini Camp director, Beth Anne Clark-Thomas, PhD, of Malone University, in Canton, Ohio, free reign to take our vision for the program and run with it. She recruited staff and some campers, too. She worked with the staff, created the structure and routines for the program, and made Mini Camp the success it is today.
The program design was based on the idea of “A Taste of Alleghany.” Elements were selected from term camp to let the Mini Camp campers experience in just one week a taste of what Camp Alleghany is all about. We included many of Alleghany’s treasured traditions, such as lunch under the apple tree, dinner hikes, and daily assemblies concluding with a minibanquet and campfire. Their signature color, tie-dye, symbolically represents the burst of all the experiences they will have across future summers as a “Ghany girl.” It has been a huge hit.
In summer 2013, we celebrate our eleventh anniversary of Mini Camp. We began our first summer with twenty-five little girls and a week full of rain. They never even noticed the rain because they were having so much fun! We’ve had as many as eighty-four Mini Camp campers in a session; last summer we had seventy. Mini Camp is a wonderful introduction to three-week camp and has served to strengthen Alleghany.
Over the past ten summers, we’ve regularly reflected on the Mini Camp program, collecting electronic survey feedback from both staff and families. This feedback has led to improvements in our original design, including the previously mentioned decision to have all the summer counselors living together in senior camp. This has served to strengthen staff bonds. Particularly, we pair new counselors with veterans in a deliberate manner. During the week of Mini Camp, the counselors form new friendships and expand their resource base while living in closer proximity.
We have also changed the age range of Mini Camp campers to seven- to ten-year-olds. The number of eleven-year-olds began small and never grew. Therefore, we decided to eliminate this age from Mini Camp.
We have consistently averaged an 80 percent return rate of Mini Camp campers who return to attend summer camp as juniors (ages eight to twelve years old). And of that 80 percent, approximately 40 percent continue through the senior camp, ages thirteen to sixteen. Approximately one-third of this summer’s counseling staff began as Mini Camp campers.
As an incentive for Mini Camp parents, we offer a discount to any Mini Camp camper who returns for one of the longer sessions in that same summer. Annually, we do have Mini Camp campers who choose to go home, wash their laundry, and return for a three-week session!
Overall, the Mini Camp program has boosted our numbers. In 2012, for the first summer in many years, we were at our absolute maximum of 220 campers each session. Mini Camp has not only boosted our numbers and revenue, but also our spirits. Having these wonderful little girls and the Mini Camp counselors injecting us with their enthusiasm right at the beginning of the summer is terrific! We recommend this type of program to any traditional camp.
|Camp Alleghany was established in 1922 on the banks of the Greenbrier River near Lewisburg, West Virginia. It is a private, general camp steeped in the traditions of its past. Cooper Dawson bought the camp in 1964, and his son, Sam Dawson, and Sam’s wife, Bonnie, began working at the camp in 1984. Today, Sam directs the camp, Bonnie is the special events coordinator, and the third generation of the Dawson family is involved in leadership at Alleghany. Elizabeth Shreckhise, Sam and Bonnie’s daughter, is assistant director and a major positive force at camp. Visit http://campalleghany.com  for more information.|
Bonnie Dawson taught science for forty years in Virginia and worked at Alleghany in a variety of positions, beginning in the drama department, in the summer of 1984. She retired from teaching in 2010, but continues at camp as the special events coordinator.
Beth Anne (“B.A.”) Clark-Thomas, PhD, currently prepares future teachers at the university level and is in her thirty-third year as an educator. B.A. attended Alleghany as a camper and counselor, and she has held various leadership positions at camp over the years. She is the founder and present director of Mini Camp. This will be her fortieth season at Camp Alleghany.
Originally published in the 2013 July/August Camping Magazine