I am no runner. Mall-walker, maybe, but definitely not a runner. And yet, even I can proudly say I have completed a 5K run (and even beat my goal time)!

I used a “Couch to 5K” plan to support my preparation as I had no idea what it even meant to run a 5K, let alone how to get myself ready for it. I followed a weekly plan to help me learn all the basics of what to wear and how to hydrate, breathe, and pace myself to not just finish, but finish well.

Camp professionals often compare the summer season in their program to running a marathon. During interviews with seasonal staff, we share about the importance of taking care of themselves to ensure they can be at their best for the entirety of their employment. And while they typically smile and nod, much like an experienced runner telling me, the non-runner, how to prepare for and run a race well, the meaning is lost in lack of experience-based understanding. We need to find better ways to prepare our staff for the unknown of staff training, the warmup for a successful summer marathon, and what it means to run the full marathon as staff and stakeholders in our programs.

This 5K-completing non-runner has seen the benefit of preparing for the unknown by following a plan put together by experienced experts. As a camp professional, you are the expert preparing your staff for the experience of a lifetime. Instead of asking them to show up with no idea how or what they were really preparing for, a similar “couch to camp” program fills in those gaps on the long runway leading up to camp. By sharing manageable bits of information, giving tips and tricks, and connecting staff with each other to create community and camaraderie long before meeting face to face on-site for training, staff have a better idea of the road ahead. Return staff are given the opportunity to establish themselves as experienced marathoners, introducing new staff to their greatest resources long before the race begins.

In a world where watching a video equals experience, it can be challenging to help new staff understand what a summer at your camp will look and feel like. Waiting for staff training feels inadequate for effective staff preparation. Create the opportunity for your staff to prepare and warm up a bit to help them not only finish the marathon of your camp season, but finish well, with plans to return!

Couch to Camp Framework: If You Build It, They Will Come (Better Prepared)

Choose a space for posting information that allows interaction with each other, including asking you questions. Slack is a great communication tool many camps have used successfully. Each week, write up the post including any attachments with information you want staff to absorb, practice, and reflect upon. This is a gentle space to begin sharing policies and procedures, allowing staff time to assimilate those ideas into their everyday lives and thinking before the shock of on-site immersion.

Last summer my camp did a 13-week plan; however, feel free to take this framework and adapt the length to what makes sense for your camp season and fill it with your own program information and cultural norms.

Week 1: Introduce the Program as a Warm-Up Tool to Increase Their Success as Staff for the Summer

Share what to expect from you, how to participate, and projected outcomes of this Couch to Camp program.

Week 2: Mission and Vision of Your Program

Give them the opportunity to become stakeholders in the work you will be doing together.

Week 3: Introduction to Your Location

Things like weather, elevation, humidity, and average temperatures are important to share, as well as what their new neighborhood will be like (Where can they find Walmart and Starbucks?).

Week 4: A Day in Their Life for the Upcoming Summer

Start painting a detailed picture of what they can expect: when/where will they sleep, eat, and have time for themselves?

Week 5: Gear Up!

What supplies will they need? Do you have a dress code you can share? This is a great space for returning staff to shine as experts by sharing pro tips around favorite gear and recommendations based on their experience.

Week 6: Connection and Communication

Provide detailed information about how and when they will be able to communicate with friends and family back home. Is limited cell phone use a part of your program? Now is a good time to begin practicing that!

Week 7: Wellness and Well-Being at Camp

You’ve introduced what a day in their summer life will look like. Now is the time to talk about how they focus on well-being while working at camp. How do they manage stress? What resources will they have available to them? How much time do they have to utilize for personal wellness? What will that look like at camp and how will they need to adjust to ensure they manage their personal wellbeing in a way that fits in their schedule and job duties? Help them set the right expectations.

Week 8: Camp Google: How Will They Ask Questions and Get Needed Answers and Information at Camp?

Asking for help and learning can be challenging in a new space. Recognize your staff are used to finding everything from information and answers on “how to” videos in seconds on their phones. That might look different at camp! Share what your camp “Google” process looks like and what they can expect.

Week 9: What Will Their Summer Home Be Like?

Laundry, food, storage space, sleeping area, and down time relaxation are a few that come to mind. Time to get specific and help them know what is available and the expectation for that time and space. Maybe even include some photos or a video of their camp spaces!

Week 10: Meet the Team

Who will they be running this marathon alongside? Create opportunities for staff to connect and interact with your full-time team and each other as they prepare to make lifelong friendships.

Week 11: Travel and Transportation

Nail down details for travel to camp, including any shuttles, meetups, and confirmations with clear communication about who to contact for support along the way.

Week 12: Build the Hype

This is the time to help them share with their friends, family, and social media followers (if allowed with your program) about the journey to which they are committed. Give them your program’s language to share about their job title, location, culture, experience, etc., and help them be the “hype” team for your program! Don’t forget how to communicate with them while away, and any #hashtags you want them to use in social media posts.

Week 13: Staff Training and Go Time!

This should be your big marathon kick-off and celebration! Once staff are together for pre-camp training and connected to their teammates in-person, the dress rehearsal for your summer has begun.  Your racers are getting warmed up for the campers to join the community and your journey to begin — you are better and stronger together!

Lessons Learned

  • Build your plan ahead of time by writing your posts in advance so you can simply copy and paste when ready to post. As you get closer to the start of your summer marathon, this will keep your weekly posts a quick and easy task as your days get busier.
  • Create space for your return staff to take the lead on some posts and set them up as experienced resources for other staff.
  • Staff who may not have experienced camp before may not know what questions to ask. Don’t wait for questions; put yourself in their shoes and share information you know to be valuable to help bridge the gap.

Having a Couch to Camp-style program is a great way to prepare staff for the unknown of working at camp and build stamina and resiliency so they can successfully cross the finish line of the summer camp marathon!

This blog was written on behalf of Project Real Job whose purpose is to support camps in their efforts to recruit, hire, and retain staff.

Kendra Perkins, MA Ed, is the director of Camp SAY and has 20 years of experience in camping with a focus in MESH programming and individualized support including adaptations for campers and staff in the residential setting. She has a master’s degree in special education where her culminating thesis was focused on youth resiliency. Prior to working in the camping world Kendra was a special education teacher and supported the growth and development of children and adults with disabilities, specifically in the areas of social/emotional health and 21st Century skills. Kendra is an active member of ACA and serves on the Staff Recruitment & Retention Committee. She can be reached at kendra@say.org.

Photo courtesy of Discovery Day Camp in Herderson, Nevada