Presidential Fellows: A Program for Leadership Development at Camp Twin Lakes

Josh Cagliani, M Ed, and Dan C. Mathews, M Ed, CTRS
January 2018

The age-old question of “What do you do the rest of the year?” is inevitable. Every camp director we know has heard it, often many times. Summer is an intense and busy time, and we have worked hard to make sure that we, and our campers, have the appropriate support. When August comes around, all that hands-on energy and youthful compassion go back to school. Camp directors are left to fill in on the front line for our programs that continue deep into the fall and resume soon after the New Year. And we find ourselves running ragged from providing hospitality and programs as well as running a recruiting and hiring program for the next crop of staff for the following summer.

We at Camp Twin Lakes found ourselves in this exact situation. We were expanding from one campsite to two and needed to be able to provide programming for our nonsummer camps for children with serious illnesses, disabilities, and life challenges. We needed program support so our professional staff could concentrate on our expansion and ongoing administrative needs. We happened to share office space in Atlanta with a volunteer organization called Hands On Atlanta (handsonatlanta.org). At the time, they had what seemed like an army of AmeriCorps volunteers who worked in the Atlanta Public Schools. (AmeriCorps is a voluntary civil society of individuals who commit their time and skills to get things done for America.) These volunteers were paid a weekly stipend, and after a year of service, were given credits toward their student loans. We loved the model and decided to apply to be an AmeriCorps site. However, we learned we did not meet the requirements of the program, which involved volunteer engagement rather than programmatic leadership.

In taking a deeper look at what we needed, we realized that we had tremendous young people every summer who were looking for careers in camping, education, recreation therapy, and other service-oriented professions. That provided us with an opportunity to develop a program to engage a recent college graduate and program staff member, providing him or her with a weekly stipend, room, and board. Staff would participate in a yearlong professional development opportunity to learn about camp management, nonprofit management, program management, and staff supervision in a supportive and intentional environment.

We are very proud of our intentional camp programs for children facing serious illness, disability, or other life challenges. These programs give our campers life skills that will last far beyond one week of camp. It was imperative that our Presidential Fellowship program, named in honor of our former board presidents, be intentional and build skills for these potential emerging camp professionals as well. We developed an experience that would provide opportunities to engage with our leadership, board of directors, and other camp professionals. We wanted to make sure that the fellows would benefit from the program and be prepared to step into a professional role at a camp or other youth development program at the completion of their fellowship.

In the summer of 2008, we took applications from our summer program staff members for the first fellowships, which would start in September of that year and last until the end of August 2009. We hired our first two fellows and created living space in our staff lounge for both to have their own bedroom with a shared kitchen and living area. Our full-time program coordinator was promoted to camp manager to take over our second site, which would include a substantial renovation. The transition for his replacement was made much smoother by having our fellows in place to help familiarize the new program coordinator with our camp.

As our capacity has increased to two year-round sites and one summer-only site, so has our Presidential Fellowship program. We currently have five fellows who are assigned to our different campsites. This has provided the opportunity to create a community within that group, which has helped our sites to collaborate as opposed to compete. When we have a successful program at one site, the fellows are excited to share it with their peers at another site. Having a “critical mass” of people has allowed us to formalize the professional development with the team by having monthly “Fellows Only” sessions to learn about specific topics. We have invested in making sure each fellow attends the American Camp Association National Conference each year so they can be exposed to camp as a career and as an industry. In fact, the more intentional we are about the fellowship as leadership development, the more impactful and fun the program has become.

The Process

So, what does the process look like in going from a program staff member to completing the yearlong fellowship program?

In the early part of the summer, staff who are eligible and interested are given an opportunity to ask questions and engage current and former fellows about the Presidential Fellowship program. Those staff whose interest is piqued are asked to fill out an application and go through an interview process. The interview includes questions around their personal and professional goals, how this experience can enhance their careers, and what kind of difference they hope to make at the completion of the fellowship. Across the three locations, we may have as many as ten to 12 applicants for a handful of positions.

Once applicants have been interviewed, full-time staff at each location decide which applicants should be hired and to which location they should be assigned. Staff may have worked at one site in the summer but could end up at another for the fellowship based on each camp’s needs. The fellowship officially starts in August and begins with an orientation dedicated to goals, expectations, and objectives.

The program’s curriculum has evolved over the years, and we continue to tweak the content and presentation to meet the needs of our staff before and during summer. Each month, staff from all locations are required to meet with one of the camp managers for an all-day leadership development training. The mornings are dedicated to a topic like public speaking, creativity, being a first-time manager, giving feedback, and general leadership. Fellows are tasked with reading a book in preparation for the meeting related to the topic for the month. As a group, a discussion takes place and activities will follow that help them dive deeper into the subject matter.

The afternoon is dedicated to a service project that is created by the camp managers and program coordinators. The goal is for the fellows to use their collective knowledge to brainstorm and implement a new idea that can be used across the Camp Twin Lakes organization. The projects could include designing a new evening program, adapting a current program to better meet our current needs, or creating a training for use with staff or volunteers. We want the fellows to think beyond what is in front of them and create something impactful, intentional, and life-changing.

We are constantly trying to expose our fellows to new settings and experiences outside of the monthly meetings throughout the fellowship. This includes participating in learning journeys to other camps and organizations, investing in new trainings, and being a part of the administrative side of camp. Fellows are included in certain board committee meetings, budget meetings, and all partner interactions related to their camp site. We believe that being a well-rounded staff member goes beyond just running a program. We want our fellows to be engaged community members, agents for positive change, and advocates for those who can’t advocate for themselves.

The Program

Programmatically, Camp Twin Lakes strives to increase our impact on our campers, staff, and volunteers. To support this goal outside of summer, we developed a strategy of creating multiple touch points throughout the year. Camp-To-Go, a program born from this strategy, takes camp activities into children’s hospitals across the state of Georgia. These programs are picture-perfect ways to help our fellows engage with campers during the school year. The fellows are our primary facilitators of the Camp-To-Go program. Each fellow is given the opportunity to learn more about the campers’ conditions and work closely with medical staff in a clinical setting.

The summer staff recruiting and hiring process is also an area that we have found to be very beneficial to our fellows as we lead up to summer. They are engaged in the process from beginning to end, and it has proven to be a very enlightening experience for them. While our professional staff have the decision-making responsibility regarding who to hire, fellows experience the process with new eyes and from a different perspective.

At the completion of the spring season, the fellow’s role changes to give them a leadership function with the incoming summer staff. The first task is to work with a full-time staff member to create and deliver a session during training that is engaging, fun, and memorable. Other roles include working with the partner organizations during camp, leading staff meetings, managing program areas, and creating a culture of high expectations. We also remember to keep them close to their roots by having them lead sessions and work side-by-side with program staff in day-to-day camp operations. Fellows are the frontline staff, and the energy and work ethic they carry reverberates throughout the staff.

As the summer winds down, we look to the fellows to help with the transition to the incoming fellows. They update the Presidential Fellowship manual, create a list of what worked and what didn’t work for them, and provide any other relevant information that a new fellow might want to know.

The Results

During our last strategic planning process, we committed to becoming a leadership institute. The fellowship program has allowed us to develop that idea further. We have used it as a platform to create leaders who could one day become full-time staff members or go on to do great things at other camps or professions. In an ideal world, we could keep them with us, but we know that isn’t always possible. However, we want people to know that our fellows are ready to make that next step, even if it is away from Camp Twin Lakes. This idea of being a leadership institute has now been developed further to include our full-time staff in a similar way through a book club dedicated to topics related to camp, such as leadership, customer service, and motivating staff.

Since our Presidential Fellowship program began, we have hired seven fellows to be on our full-time staff. Our partner organizations have also hired several, allowing us to continue working with them. Our other alumni fellows are now in fields such as elementary and secondary education, mental health counseling, child life in various children’s hospitals, overseas missions, nursing, medicine, law, business, and, of course, camp.

When the fellowship year comes to an end, we expect that we have given the fellows an experience that they will remember, cherish, and use to better the world around them. When they look back, we hope that it will be with fond memories of new experiences, friendships made, and lessons learned.

Additional Reading

Following are some of the books fellows have been tasked with reading:
  • Start With Why, by Simon Sinek
  • Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, by Jim Collins
  • Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, by Kerry Patterson and Joseph Grenny
  • Talk Like Ted: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds, by Carmine Gallo

 

Photo courtesy of Camp Twin Lakes, Inc., Rutledge, Georgia

Josh Cagliani, M Ed, currently serves as the camp manager for Camp Dream at Camp Twin Lakes, a camp for children with serious illnesses, disabilities, and life challenges. He has a master’s degree in Recreation and Leisure Studies from the University of Georgia. Josh has served on several American Camp Association committees including the ACA National Conference committee, ACA National Conference Program Review team, and on the Medically Focused Program Track committee. He has also served as an ACA visitor, a member of the Southeastern Region Local Council of Leaders Standards Team, and served on the Special Needs Kindred Conference committee. A diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes at two years of age has led Josh to a career of helping others going through difficult situations.

Dan C. Mathews, M Ed, CTRS, is the chief operating officer for Camp Twin Lakes, which partners with over 60 nonprofit, youth-serving organizations across the state of Georgia to provide camping opportunities for kids who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend due to serious illnesses, disabilities, and life challenges through its extensive programming and operation of three campsites. He is a certified recreation therapist and manages camp operations, partner relations, food service, medical oversight, and site and facilities. Dan is active in the American Camp Association, and has been an honoree for FOCUS’s For the Love of Children Gala, and named the Youth Development Practitioner of the Year by the US PLAY Coalition in 2017. He has also served on the faculty of Georgia Southern University teaching in the Recreation Therapy Curriculum. Dan will celebrate his 30th season in organized camping for children with illness and disability this summer!