Imagine a camp program with the power to improve the academic and social behavior of participants and to positively impact participants’ readiness for work, social development, and lifelong learning. All camp administrators herald this program vision for campers, but what about for staff? Camp can positively impact young staff as well. It happens through a program otherwise known as a seasonal job.

Camps are in a position to influence the lives of staff, many of whom are young adults in transition, and some of whom are young adults at risk. For teens, employment offers a foundation for development. Federal, state, and local governments recognize that most teen crime and antisocial behavior happens during unsupervised and unstructured hours and is typically committed by unemployed young people. Camps can help funnel teens’ energy in a positive direction with the help of the 1994 School to Work Act.

A Community Effort

Many federal, state, and local programs are available to help you develop and fund a school-to-work program, potentially reducing costs in personnel, training, insurance, and liability. The 1994 School to Work Act promotes a comprehensive framework to help develop partnerships around school-to-work transition and provides a clear model for pursuing various funding streams. Utilizing these resources to develop a cadre of staff from area families and young adults through effective staff hiring, development, and support can be a powerful program for camps that face a chronic short supply of qualified support staff.

Developing a program for support staff also gives camps an opportunity to practice experiential education by providing diverse opportunities for staff development and personal growth. Finally, employment within a community can generate goodwill and collaboration among families, neighbors, schools, and agencies. Educational transition literature suggests that communities need to help parents and children plan the steps necessary for a successful school-to-work transition, especially for at-risk youth.

Training and in-service programs for support staff positions, which many young adults occupy, are often overlooked by camps. In a random telephone survey of ten ACA-accredited camps in the ACA Midwestern Region, all reported initial staff training and ongoing in-service for cabin leaders and instructional staff; just two reported staff training or in-service programs for support staff. These training opportunities are important to help teens make a successful transition from school to work.

Jon's Story

Jon’s story illustrates how camp can do a "world of good" for support staff. When the camp director first met Jon, he was having a soda with his grandparents in a local coffee shop, and they were discussing what he was going to do with his summer. The camp director and Jon’s grandparents struck up a conversation and soon discovered that they were neighbors, yet Jon and his family had never set foot in camp before. Jon began to speak about his goals for the summer, for his future, and about his ability to work hard and follow through. He and his grandparents also spoke openly about Jon’s struggles in school and at home. The camp director noticed much potential in Jon and decided to hire him as a kitchen support staff person.

Almost nine months after camp, Jon was still very much involved with camp. His family and their extended families had become great supporters of camp and had developed strong commitments to camp. Jon’s teachers and principal noticed a positive difference in his behavior and academic achievement. He achieved higher grades, was involved in anti-drug programs, and experienced a decrease in problems both at school and at home.

Requirements for Success

These gains were not made without effort. Fostering excellence in young support staff demands the following committed efforts from directors and administrators.

Family collaboration and support
The camp director’s initial contact with Jon’s family set the stage for cooperation between family and employer, which helped make Jon’s summer successful. The camp director was able to see Jon in the context of his family, and Jon’s family gained a clear understanding of what Jon’s responsibilities would be. They became invested in their son’s summer job, and vicariously, in the camp’s mission.

Staff dialogue and cooperation
An important step in training and supporting Jon began with integrating Jon into the kitchen staff and enlisting their help in mentoring Jon. The camp director met with the entire food service staff and requested that they help him learn the routine of a most important job, one that is all too forgotten, washing dishes and sanitizing the kitchen. They expressed their concerns about Jon’s struggles affecting his job performance, and the camp director and kitchen staff brainstormed ways to help him grow in his new position. This meeting would become a critical step in supporting Jon’s employment. The food service staff were committed to working with him and reported feeling purposeful in helping him grow both as an employee and as a young man.

Willingness of administration to stretch job roles
As Jon became more familiar with the staff and his duties, he suggested that his friend Jack needed a job. Jack was hired and began to apprentice under Jon, supervised by the food service staff. This arrangement worked well. Jon had taken ownership of his duties, and this attitude and commitment passed as a contagion from Jon to Jack. Within two weeks, the kitchen was sparkling, and the time spent on the tasks could be reduced due to increased efficiency.

However, this presented new challenges to the administration, because now there were two enthusiastic young men working very hard and desiring a broader role in camp. As time permitted, these two young men asked for and received additional training and duties as appropriate. After completing lifeguard training, Jon helped lifeguard. Jack helped lead young canoeists to the island campsite.

Collaboration with local schools and agencies
Many agencies invest in young people and businesses involved in school-to-work programs. Local schools can help identify teens who might fit well into a camp’s support staff program. In addition, they can give valuable insight into special needs and skills that these individuals bring with them to their new jobs. This information can help the camp shape a program which will benefit both the camp and the young employee.

Administrative Implications

Many directors probably feel they do not have time to monitor a teen’s transition from school to work and the development of quality work skills, habits, and behaviors. However, camp directors do this for all of their employees already, through training, evaluation, and feedback. The key is expanding communication so that everyone is clear about job description, duties, and personal boundaries.

Certainly, more time and effort are required to manage with the level of involvement necessary. However, the equity built with parents, neighbors, local schools, and agencies can far outweigh the cost for participating as a work site. Indeed, it is possible to pay for more than 50 percent of support staff costs with adolescent transitional employment dollars through training programs, internships, and school-to-work grants. Jon’s and Jack’s salaries were paid through internships furnished by a local agency’s summer internship program. The next summer, thirteen of the camp’s support staff positions were funded by the same agency.

Camp can teach valuable lessons to everyone involved — campers and staff. In particular, young workers can learn commitment to timeliness and thoroughness, communication skills by setting boundaries and addressing challenges, how to work as a team, and responsibility. Camps gain an employee who is committed to the camp and its mission. All it takes is a commitment by the administrative staff to invest in these young workers’ growth and development.


Originally published in the 1999 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.