Great Things Have Small Beginnings

Ross Turner
January 2018

In 1861, Frederick W. Gunn and his wife, Abigail, took their students on a two-week summer camping trip. The very popular program was repeated for the next several years — a small thing that is credited as the first summer camp. As the idea gained momentum for this new summer experience, more camps opened and, in 1910, some of the camp directors came together and founded the Camp Directors Association of America. This evolved into the American Camp Association (ACA). Today the association has over 14,000 members and 3,100 camps.

The ACA is a collaborative “community of professionals” who share knowledge, experiences, ideas, and support for the positive ideals of the camp experience. Camps have evolved beyond the Gunns’ rugged outdoor camping trip. Camps now include a wide range of programs and serve many different participants. In every part of the country there are private, for-profit camps, nonprofit camps, agency camps, special needs camps, religiously affiliated camps, specialty camps, and “traditional” camps. There are outdoor education camps during the school year, camps on college campuses, travel camps, day camps, family camps, and camps for adults. Together, we belong to the ACA to preserve, promote, and improve the camp experience.

The ACA Board of Directors has the responsibility to achieve the vision of “Enriching Lives, Changing the World” and to magnify the value of the camp experience and increase the number of people enriched by the camp experience. It is sometimes hard to live up to our legacy, but it is also imperative that we have laser focus on new initiatives and those that impact our future.

So, what were ACA’s focus and accomplishments in 2017?

We welcomed Tom Rosenberg as our new CEO. With his past experience as a camp director, ACA volunteer, local section president, and former ACA Board of Directors treasurer, he was very prepared for the tasks and challenges ahead. It was a year of transition and new beginnings. Initially, Tom focused on the relationships and directions of the dedicated full-time staff, both in Martinsville, Indiana, and across the US. He needed to keep the daily operation of the association intact and moving forward to continue to provide high-quality services for all ACA members. Besides his focus on operations, he has coordinated efforts to achieve the board’s strategic priorities. Recently, Rosenberg has been an emissary to the international camp community with visits to China and Russia. He has also been meeting with CEOs of many like-minded youth development and camp-oriented organizations around the country. This only strengthens our image.

ACA is growing. Each year, we see between a 5-percent and 10-percent increase in our ranks. This is an exciting trend. The national camp community (ACA and non-ACA camps) recognizes that ACA truly represents a solution in operating safe camps that adhere to a rigorous, peer review accreditation process. We also provide potential individual camp directors and large, multiprogram operators the professional development so important to staff leadership. The support services available to all camps from our volunteers and ACA staff provide the latest in operational best practices as well as insights to future trends and issues.

Rhonda Mickelson, ACA’s director of standards, reports that last year our nearly 1,200 standards visitors made 560 accreditation visits and nearly 2,000 annual accreditation reviews. Working with her volunteer committee, the ACA National Standards Commission, they are developing new accreditation models that were tested this past summer and will be further tested in 2018. The new standards will be fully implemented in 2019. An important focus is the implementation of technology into the accreditation process. The ACA Board of Directors has authorized funds for the acquisition of software that will move the 2018 Annual Accreditation Report online, allowing a quicker, more efficient review process.

As an organization, we greatly appreciate all of our volunteer standards visitors and participants in national and local committees and training groups. Without their efforts our valuable accreditation process would not be possible.

Research 360’s Impact Study just finished Phase I, the exploratory phase of the five-year study, Laurie Browne, PhD, ACA director of research, reported to the board recently. With the initial question of “How do camps prepare youth for college, career, and life?” Browne reports that Phase I has laid the foundation for Phases 2 and 3 to be done during the summer in 2018. Beginning this summer, 500 families will be tracked for the next three years through the Impact Study led by Jim Sibthrop, PhD, of the University of Utah.

Browne also reported the addition of new impact studies run in conjunction with the original study. ACA, New York and New Jersey just approved funding for a component specifically sampling staff. Additional groups representing specific populations will join the study in the near future. This is exciting work, and we are all anxious for the results. It is also important to recognize the ACA Research Advisory Committee that works closely with Browne; they recently met in Salt Lake City with Sibthrop’s team.

In addition to the five-year Impact Study, Deb Bialeschki, PhD, is leading the Spencer Grant research project with a focus on leadership development among CITs/LITs and young staff to identify outcomes tied to career, college, and life readiness of these staff. This multiyear study is also being conducted with the University of Utah.

Volunteer engagement is an important strategic priority for the association and a focus of the board. The Volunteer Engagement Committee (VEC) is chaired by Rich Garbinski, who works with ACA field staff, ACA board members, the Local Council of Leaders (LCOL), and many dedicated key volunteers to enhance and further the role of the member volunteers. In October, the LCOL delegates met in Chicago for the Volunteer Leadership Training workshop. An aggressive agenda helped focus VEC and LCOL efforts on the current and future role and importance of the volunteer to the stability and future growth of ACA.

A new Field Office Operation Guide is expected from the VEC in coming months along with new volunteer frameworks. ACA needs more volunteers. Please get involved on the local, regional, or national level.

The ACA Board of Directors created the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force under the direction of board member Roberto Gil, Jr., Esquire. The committee is comprised of current and former board members and key volunteers currently working on an ACA Diversity and Inclusion Statement. The task force will present a draft for review to the National Council of Leaders (NCOL) at the annual conference. Niambi Jaha-Echols, former ACA board member and current task force member, will coordinate the Camp Includes Me track at this year’s national conference. This is a powerful initiative and I encourage all members to engage with this effort.

International staff have been an important cultural component to camps for many years. All international staff must have a J-1 Visa to work in camp. The entire J-1 Visa program is under review by the federal government. President Trump’s executive order, “Buy American and hire American,” ushered in this review during the late summer and fall of 2017. The ACA Government Relations Committee (formerly Public Policy Committee) has a strong team of dedicated and knowledgeable volunteers. When the threat of losing the J-1 Visa was apparent, the committee, under the leadership of volunteer Scott Brody and working with our CEO, Tom Rosenberg, jumped into action and mobilized the efforts of volunteers and staff. The strategy included retaining prominent government relations firms to help our targeted outreach to Congress, and specifically within the Trump administration, to amplify our voice and message about the importance of the J-1 Visa programs to camps.

My position as the board chair allows me to interact with the entire association in truly unique ways. I am continually amazed at the “bandwidth” of the organization and the number of really hardworking and dedicated volunteers and staff who make things happen. I am proud to represent the association and to be connected to such powerful, life-changing efforts. At the end of the day, if we can create a brighter future for each child and adult who goes through our camps, we have also created a brighter future for our communities, our country, and our world.

And to think it all started with a two-week camping trip.


Ross Turner is the president and CEO of Guided Discoveries, a nonprofit organization that develops and operates outdoor educational programs and summer youth camps. He is also board chair for the American Camp Association’s Board of Directors. Ross can be reached at Ross@GDI.org.