Attracting Diverse Staff and Campers

Garrett Colgan-Snyder
September 2011

I am white, Protestant, and I was raised in an upper-middle class, two-parent household . . . but that does not mean that my campers or staff need to be. As the founder and director of Camp Hawkeye, a coed overnight camp in Moultonborough, New Hampshire, I realize that it actually means more for my campers and staff if they are not. I founded Hawkeye with a diversity focus — to combine groups that are usually reached by disparate camps and bring them together in one program for the shared benefit of everyone involved.

Science has taught us is that in nature, both at the ecosystem level and among a species population, diversity is directly related to health and success. But it's still important to ask ourselves, for our camp communities and otherwise: "Why is diversity important to us?" When I examine this question as it relates to our program, I have two distinct answers:

  1. The overnight camp experience is too special and possibly life altering to restrict access to the most privileged few.
  2. There are tremendous benefits for our campers and staff to live, work, and play with peers whose circumstances, experiences, and outlook are so different from our own.

By bringing children and youth to camp and putting them together in cabins, at meals, and in activities with positive mentors, we have given them the common ground on which to stand. From there they can do what many kids do best . . . ask questions. They can find out about each other, work to understand their bunkmates because they are cool and can hit a bull's-eye — not because a teacher or mediator told them to. They can eventually come to partake in and celebrate each other's experiences and distinction.

The Beginning of Camp Hawkeye

At the all boys camp in central Vermont that I attended as a kid, I remember finding that kind of experience only in part — I remember international counselors. As a first-year camper, it was the first time I had ever heard a New Zealand accent. There were no campers or staff of color that I remember, not that it mattered to me at the time. I was concerned with the types of things you would expect: impressing the cool CITs, passing my swim test, and learning the camp songs. I wasn't a fresh born activist and didn't write in a journal about it, but when I recently dug out the one cabin picture that I still have from twenty-plus years ago, I could see that my memory was, in this case, accurate.

Later, as a counselor, at a much higher-end camp in the Adirondacks, after nearly a decade away from summer camp of any kind, I rediscovered my love for camp. I was a college graduate at this point and had been a peace studies major. My time there quickly reawakened my love of camp and built upon my foundation of understanding for the power of the experience. It also disturbed me to recognize the lack of diversity throughout the camp at which I was working. Even worse was the way certain groups were pigeon-holed into certain roles in the kitchen, as dishwashers, in the laundry, or doing maintenance.

Nearly six years ago, in October of 2005, I founded Camp Hawkeye. I wanted to build on what I loved about the camp experience and the residential program environment by creating a fuller and more representative community — a community that was reflective of the rich diversity that characterizes America today.

The Camp Hawkeye Mission

The mission at Camp Hawkeye is to bring together a diverse community of individuals that includes campers and staff from a variety of geographic, socioeconomic, cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. In this way, we seek to bridge social, economic, and cultural gaps to build positive relationships and deep mutual understanding for our young campers.

We have a balance of broad groups that we try to maintain, and we work hard to do so. That is the crux of any initiative, change, or benchmark — how much organizational time and effort and how many resources are we going to devote to achieving this end? How important is it to our stakeholders? How important is it to us?

At Hawkeye, the broad groups that we attempt to bring together each summer include campers from outside the United States, campers from underserved communities whose families would otherwise not be able to afford overnight camp, and campers from communities whose families have not traditionally sent their children to camp.

Each of us must understand, and you may already recognize, that these groups overlap. That can make things confusing for standardized record keeping, but it's wonderful for making friends and focusing on our active program because certain camper groups are not easily distinguishable. Of course, those from outside the United States tend to have accents that give them away when the other groups can melt together.

However, in our drive for diversity at Hawkeye, we do not stop with these three categories. We also strive for ethnic/cultural diversity; a diversity of community to include rural, urban, and suburban; diversity of family makeup; and diversity of learning style, religion, and sexual orientation. In six summers of running Camp Hawkeye, we've had a camper population in which at least 40 percent were campers of color, 35–50 percent received financial aid, and 20–45 percent were from out of the country. But for the purposes of the rest of this article, I will focus on racial/ethnic diversity at camp.

Welcome Diversity in Your Marketing

First and foremost, any member of your community needs to feel welcome. I don't mean when they arrive at camp they need to feel accepted and involved — we are not there yet. I mean that they need to believe that your camp community is the place for them. It needs to appear to be a good fit. Although not all types of diversity for which your camp might strive can be seen, some can be.

I found this out the hard way in my first years selling Hawkeye because I had a picture of a boy on the cover of our brochure. This camper was older as far as camp age goes, perhaps fourteen, and he was standing alone on a rock with the sun behind him and some of our catch phrases at the time written around him. Some questions I got were "Can girls go, too?" and "Is this camp just for older kids?" This simple lesson challenges us to look at other such messages of belonging and acceptance.

As a test, go to five random camp Web sites that you know and look at the faces staring back at you. Take note of the number of campers and staff of color that you see and reflect on the ratio. Now look at your own marketing materials (Web site, brochures, PowerPoint Presentations, etc.). Do they welcome campers from diverse backgrounds?

This same example applies to staff. Do potential staff members with diverse backgrounds see the community as a good fit? More specifically, do potential staff members with the background you are targeting see this as a good fit?

Of course, marketing is going to be more difficult in the early years of recruiting a more diverse community, but it will get easier. Don't buy 10,000 brochures this year to save money now if increasing diversity in your camp is a priority. With digital printing, you have some great options. Some printers offer to print brochures with multiple covers or multiple page options as long as they are the same length and are printed at the same time. Check with your printer. You may be able to have a variety of brochures with different pictures targeting different populations.

Staff Must Reflect Camper Populations

A camper "must" is to have a staff group that reflects your camper population. Kids need someone with whom they feel they have something in common to connect. Focus on increasing the diversity in your staff group first. This can help drive the diversity of your camper population. Also, if you do recruit campers of color, you are more likely to retain those campers the following summer because they made connections with the staff and felt accepted at your camp.

Recruiting great staff members that also add to your staff diversity is not simple by any means. We all work hard each year to bring in great people to our staff team, but recruiting with diversity in mind isn't rocket science. In order to bring in more staff of color you need to recruit intentionally. We do this already with other areas of camp — we look for a chef at cooking schools or ski resort food service; we recruit nurses through school district job postings; and we hire trip and outdoor skills staff from experiential education programs at places such as Unity College in Maine.

Recruit teachers and leadership staff from schools in school districts that have a more diverse population. Post information about openings at these schools and hire good people who will spread the word about your camp, and you will end up with both staff and campers as a result. Reach out to job placement agencies and nonprofits that focus on placing young people of color in summer jobs. Hire college freshman with the work habits and character traits you value and train them in your program.

Where we started to recruit campers and staff of color was through partnerships. We have partnered for the last six years with nonprofits, schools, and municipalities to bring individuals and groups to camp, as well as to offer a special rate to a target population. When we thought we needed to increase our number of camper participants from rural areas, we reached out to a nonprofit that provides services to just this population in New Hampshire and brought in five new campers that first year.

If you are offering a positive experience for staff and campers of color, building a base of alumni should be a self-sustaining process. The most important aspect of our own staff group development, as far as diversity is concerned, has been growing our own staff. We have been able to continue to work with campers of color and from diverse backgrounds through their counselor-in-training and junior counselor years, and in the last couple of summers have been able to add significantly to the diversity of our staff group.

Increasing Diversity Is a Process

Increasing diversity in your camp is a process; it takes time, energy, and a plan that is communicated to your administrative and staff team. Start by evaluating your community and the message you send through materials, traditions, and programs. Make what you offer more accepting. Continue the process by creating a plan for this year. Figure out what you can do now to recruit a staff population that is increasingly diverse.

As a caveat, remember that not everyone is going to be excited about your drive for increased diversity at camp. Every so often, we field calls from parents who are at first excited about our program, but pull back when they find out more about our mission and the variety of campers with whom their child will be bunking. We have had parents do this is in an unassuming way. They'll thank us for our time and we'll never hear from them again. We've had parents do this more overtly, too. We had a parent say her son had been at a school with "urban kids" and they "played too rough" — and she and her husband decided to move him to a private school.

Most criticisms of our diversity have been oblique, but don't be surprised if you get push back from both current and prospective camp families.

Remember, too, that not every family has to be entirely sold on your goal of increased diversity. Most parents will continue to send their kids to camp because their kids have fun and love being with their friends and the staff they know. Maybe they come because it fits their schedule, or even just because your location is convenient. It doesn't matter why they come — whatever the reason, campers will benefit from the increased diversity.

I believe that our camps are fun havens from the tumultuous currents of school and community life at home and during the year. I also believe that camps should, at least, reflect the realities of the changing demographics in America. You may not believe it, but as the makeup of the middle and upper-middle class changes in this country, your client base will change. For us at Camp Hawkeye, the more camps that refuse to recognize and adapt to these transitions, the better for us as we reach new customers every year.

I don't know if you've heard . . . but people are claiming that the world is flat again. When I hear this, I think "indistinguishable, bland, unending sameness." In a word: "boring." Paper is flat. This may be true on a grand scale for economic modeling and for ease of examination of international finances, but for me and my staff at Camp Hawkeye, the world seems rounder every day.

We can fool them with fun . . .

Garrett Colgan-Snyder is the founder and director of Camp Hawkeye, a member of the NHCDA Board, and a member of the ACANE Membership Committee. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with his wife, Jessica.

Originally published in the 2011 September/October Camping Magazine.