For campers to have a successful experience we must prepare them for the unknown, build their confidence, and give them the tools needed to succeed in our camp's environment. As camps will always have new participants entering at some level, there is a great benefit in implementing a camper preparedness program to ensure campers and staff are prepared to attend as participants and employees. Intended to create an environment that supports participant success, a quality, well-planned camper and staff preparedness program helps ensure attending your camp is comfortable, welcoming, and inclusive.
For those who are bottom-line oriented, this is about good customer service. Camps spend a lot of resources — including staff/ volunteer time and substantial amounts of money — on efforts to fill their camps with paying or funded customers. At the end of the day, the quality of the experience matters, especially if one hopes to retain the camper for next season. The odds of a successful experience are greater when staff are well prepared to deliver and campers are well prepared to attend. And happy campers tend to generate more campers.
For camps with the goal of serving youth, adults, or families new to their camp, under-resourced individuals, or campers and families from diverse demographics and cultures new to the camp experience, failing to provide the appropriate support prior to attending can be devastating. And a bad camp experience may be worse than having had no camp experience at all.
Camps seriously committed to ensuring that all new participants are truly prepared to attend camp must do more than the typical open house and written information for parents (what-to-pack lists, policies, transportation schedules, etc.) prior to attending. Rather, for those serving campers and families from demographics new to their camps, and new to the camp experience, operators must be willing to go beyond the preparation strategies that have been successful with their traditional clientele.
In providing a positive experience for new campers, camps cannot take a onesize- fits-all approach. The information and preparation support needed may be very different from what you have typically provided. The creation of an intentional camper and staff preparedness program can be a critical step in providing a level playing field so new campers (and supporting family members) experience the same level of success as long-standing participants.
Successful preparation and integration of new clientele requires dedication and commitment. To serve a new demographic, and do it well, the camp may have to change — possibly in many ways. Your camp may need to alter how facilities are used, modify facilities, hire more staff, modify job descriptions, and provide additional staff training. You may also have to modify operating procedures for activities, allow schedule changes, or change policies for things like cell phones, visitation, or dress code requirements. For under-resourced youth or families, you may have to provide new services, such as transportation, bed linens, or tuition assistance, or modify current services, such as offering a broader scope of health care.
While the development of a comprehensive plan for preparing campers and staff cannot be covered in depth in the space of an article of this size, there are a few critical key points to consider.
Learning and Training
Before successfully integrating new participants in to your camp, you need to understand who they are. Serving participants from a diverse demographic new to the camp requires in-depth cultural learning, including a clear understanding of their values, expectations, needs, and beliefs. This training needs to be well thought out and carefully delivered by knowledgeable individuals. Camps should bring in professional consultants as needed — this is not the time to "wing it." Cutting corners will only shortchange the participants and may also have a negative impact on the camp.
Cultural training for staff working directly with campers and program delivery is critical to the success of the experience. It's also critical for the success of the staff. Staff preparedness is just as important as camper preparedness. Front-line staff must have the capacity to work with the participants in an understanding manner which is respectful of and responsive to such things as economic, ethnic, racial, religious, or cultural differences or needs.
Also recognize that staff may need help assimilating themselves if they are not part of the same background as the campers or other staff are — or if they, too, are new to the camp experience. For example, staff coming from urban or under-resourced backgrounds may have very different norms of behaviors, values, language, dress, etc. than a population comprised of campers from rural areas or those from highly affluent backgrounds. Camps (and their management) must understand, define, and clearly communicate what they expect, accept, and/or are willing to adapt to in order to best meet the needs of the participants and the staff.
Cultural training is also important for all staff/volunteers who will come in contact with new campers and their family members. Be sure to include any marketing, office, and registration staff, along with any staff or volunteers providing support services such as transportation, translation, registration, tours of camp, etc., in your training efforts. These individuals may have contact with camper families — and have the capacity to make or break the experience — before you ever get the camper to camp.
One of the ways to help ensure new campers succeed is to make sure prior to their attending that they share as much of the same knowledge, skills, abilities, and experience as possible as your longstanding participants. Consider the types of skills, abilities, and experiences your current participants bring to camp — such as knowing how to swim or prior experiences in the types of activities conducted at camp. The idea is to reduce the gaps between returning campers; new campers attending from your traditional demographic; and new campers from diverse, under-resourced, or dissimilar backgrounds. Activities prior to camp might include, among others:
- Introducing the camp song
- Sharing routines or traditions
- Providing skills lessons such as swimming, outdoor cooking, or sports
- Teaching camper-life skills (setting a table, making the bed, etc.)
- Offering education about the natural surroundings to increase environmental comfort
- Providing practice overnight camping
You can promote success by giving additional attention to building competence in those areas where there is a discernable difference between new and established campers.
Be Honest and Get Real about Your Facilities
Facilities, specifically sleeping and restroom facilities, play a major part in the decision to attend camp, and can seriously impact the success of the experience. To serve new campers, you may need to modify your facilities to better meet their needs. Outreach to new demographics may require such things as:
- Adding sidewalks or wheelchair ramps to better meet the mobility needs of participants or their family members
- Adding additional restroom facilities
- Improving privacy and dressing areas in restrooms or cabins
- Providing dedicated space for religious practice
- Modifying youth bunk facilities for families or adults
Ideally, preparing for camp will include an on-site visit to the camp itself. However, as this is not always possible for a myriad of reasons, the use of video, photos, or a Google Earth f lyover may help new campers and their families get a sense of the facilities.
Supporting Campers and Families
Outreach to under-resourced participants may require addition support services, such as assistance with transportation to/from camp, tuition assistance, assistance with getting a camp physical, or ensuring that the camper has the appropriate clothing and gear to attend. Outreach to diverse communities may also include the need for translation of written materials, bilingual staff/volunteers at camp (including in the registration process, and if there is a medical emergency while the child is attending), as well as special menu and food preparations, among others. In addition to looking at staffing needs to provide this support, both nonprofit and for-profit camps can benefit from building a pool of volunteers who are able to help with supporting the needs of campers and their families.
What about the Other Campers?
Even though you may have a world-class readiness program prior to camp, it is possible for another participant to create a difficult and unwelcoming environment — and the last thing you need is name-calling, bullying, fighting, or other exclusive behaviors. Therefore, it is important not to overlook the "other camper" element. Ideally, the manner in which you are operating should not call attention to the new kids. Regardless, it's critical that camps take proactive steps to ensure a welcoming and accepting environment is established.
Depending on the circumstances, include program activities that teach teambuilding, learning to accept one another, and conflict resolution. You may also wish to include specifics about the culture, customs, and abilities of the new participants if these things are not already a part of your program. It's also important to make sure that camp traditions are not offensive, exclusive, or blocks (real or perceived) to full participation.
Don't Be a Missionary if That's Not Your Mission
Yes, everyone deserves a camp experience. The caveat is that it must be a positive camp experience. And it must be a camp experience that is appropriate in meeting the needs of the participants. The reality is that not every camp can be the be-all and end-all in meeting everyone's needs.
Outreach is an exceptional utopian goal that requires an exceptional level of commitment and quality service. Before setting out on a mission, camps must be realistic about the support, resources, funding, time, staffing, program complexities, and facility improvements required — long before participants ever go to camp! Successful integration requires resources, dedication, and a commitment to "work the plan." Camps, or their parent organizations, that bite off more than they can chew only serve to cause potential harm to the participants, and ultimately to the outreach efforts of the rest of the industry.
While this is in no way intended to discourage camps from broadening their deliverables to a larger community, it is critical that these efforts are viable, of high quality, and appropriate. In some cases, camps may (should) choose what not to do — or look at alternatives such as helping to fund another program that has better capacity for serving a particular population, or in promoting the value of the experience. Ultimately, by working together we can all accomplish more.
For more information, check out these ACA articles:
Attracting Diverse Staff and Campers
Reaching Out to Nontraditional Campers: Women and Girls of African Descent Spread Their Wings at Camp Butterfly
Serving Diverse Populations: A Profile of Three Camps
Diane Tyrrell is the director at Camp Motorsport/ Chef Camp in Clover, Virginia. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Photo courtesy of Camp Kindle, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
Originally published in the 2015 January/February Camping Magazine.