Reaching Out to Underserved Campers: UniCamp’s Strategies for Success

November 2011

UniCamp has a rich tradition of reaching out to campers from underserved communities in the Los Angeles area. For over seventy-five years, UniCamp — which is largely operated by student volunteers and is the official student charity of the University of California, Los Angles (UCLA) — has given a residential camp experience to children of low-income families ages ten to seventeen. In 2006, UniCamp received an Eleanor Eells Award for Program Excellence. ACA spoke with UniCamp’s Associate Executive Director Jason Liou about the challenges UniCamp faces when recruiting campers — and the strategies that have brought success in fulfilling UniCamp’s mission.

Q: Please tell us a bit about UniCamp and your role within the program.

UniCamp is a residential summer camp program that serves underprivileged children, not necessarily from the inner-city, but from throughout the city. Four-hundred student volunteers make connections with the kids in the community and work as the counselors, so it’s pretty much an entirely volunteer program.

Our mission is to get kids to think beyond just what they have every day. We want them to expand their dreams and believe in themselves and believe that they can achieve their dreams. Also, we want to show them the importance of higher education. One of the current outcomes we’re working on is getting kids to stay in school longer. We’ve been working with LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) over the last two years, and this year we’re actually starting week-long matriculation sessions for eighth-grade students. Basically, the idea is to go over the difficulties they may face in high school, and try to prepare them better for what they’re about to face — because it’s completely different from what they’ve been facing in middle school. Our hope is that by helping in this way, we can improve the retention rate.

My role within UniCamp encapsulates many things. I select and train the counselors, advise the student volunteers who become the program directors and the head counselors, and I oversee student fundraising, among other things. We only have three professional staff, so I do a lot of everything.

Q: What do you do when you recruit staff? Do you take into account things like ability and maintaining a diverse cultural identity?

We focus on cultural identity as much as we can. There is a little bit of a gap because most of our campers are African American or Latino, and most of the students at UCLA are Caucasian and Asian American, but we do try to diversify as much as possible. We do a fairly decent job at that, I’d say. When we’re recruiting, we try to go out and focus heavily on diverse groups on campus. But we don’t take that into account when we’re doing the selection process.

During the interview process, we’re looking for people who are a little bit more comfortable outside of the box and who are not rigid or stiff. We look for students who are fun and friendly. One of the things we really stress for volunteer staff is pretending to be a kid and acting like a kid. We want to emphasize with staff how important it is to have fun and play with kids, because most kids nowadays don’t get a chance to do that.

We also look for critical thinking skills and leadership abilities, because in our program it’s very important to grow to the next level and the next level after that. As I mentioned, it is almost a completely volunteer-run program, so we don’t have paid staff coming back. We’re looking for those people who are possibly more responsible and might have a little bit more initiative.

But in the end, because they are volunteering, we’re just looking for people who want to do it for the right reasons; people who are sincere; people who want to make a difference — and like playing with kids and being in nature. What we’re looking for most is whether the person has a heart.

Q: How do you recruit campers for UniCamp?

We do it in two ways. We do outreach into communities with our counselors and also some staff. We also work with agencies. Agencies, such as After School All-Stars, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles, and the YMCA of Central Los Angeles have become kind of our “right-hand person.” UniCamp has developed partnering relationships with agencies because we find that they know the kids in the communities better than we do. And if we can communicate with that agency what we’re trying to achieve in our program and what type of campers we’re seeking, then we really work well together. What we actually try to do is get agencies to “buy in” to our program. So, we don’t want to just go to an agency and say, “Hey, we need some kids to come to this camp. We charge very little, so it’s cheap, and it’s a great way for you to send your kids and get them out of the area.”

We find that this doesn’t usually work. Often, if the agency just pays for the kids to go, then the kids will be “no shows” because the parents don’t have a financial investment. So we actually do charge a $75 fair share fee to each camper for a week of camp, and we’ve found that this fee diminishes our no-show rate dramatically. At its peak, we were having a no-show rate of about 40 percent, and now it’s down to about 15 percent — because of that fee and because the parents are more engaged. We make sure they know that the average cost is usually $600–$700 for this type of pro¬gram, so the fact that we’re giving them this camp experience at a great discount makes it seem like a good investment.

We try to get agencies to provide campers for half of complete sessions, so that helps fill the beds. But we also ask them to help out with the fees and try to raise funds a little bit also, so — like the parents — they are more invested with what we’re doing. If we can work with them, it generally works better. They fill the sessions, they’re looking for the right kids, and they’re not just sending numbers — they select kids that would best benefit from our program and what it has to offer.

As I mentioned, we’ve also started working with LAUSD — the school district and the after-school programs. That’s been great because it’s getting us into the schools more, helping us better understand the curriculum and the problems the campers are facing in the schools. And that’s why we’re altering our program to address the needs that are created in schools. 

Q: When you work with agencies and after-school programs to help recruit campers, how do you articulate the benefits and value of UniCamp?

Well, the first year is always more difficult because it is hard to articulate what the kids will experience. At camp, the kids learn what it’s like to be away from the city. Just being in nature is calming and it helps them de-stress from city life. And each week, each group of leaders creates their own outcome for the week. At UniCamp, we’re heavily based on outcomes, mission statements, and things like that. That way, we can give information to the agencies that helps them understand what we’re trying to do. We definitely tell our agencies that we’re giving kids a chance to have an experience that is life-changing and that there’s planned programming going on at camp. That helps them better understand what we do and learn the value.

During the summer, when the agencies have their kids at camp, we make sure that the leadership comes up and actually sees what’s going on. They get a better idea of what the camp is all about, how it’s run, what the kids are doing, and, especially, that they’re having a good time.

I feel that most of our feedback comes at the end of the summer, when the kids go back home and they’re just talking about it nonstop, singing the songs, using camp names, and describing what a great experience it was. After that, the agencies really know the value of the camp experience. For us, the first year with an agency is the hardest, but after that, it’s pretty easy for them to understand what an impact it makes on the kids’ lives, and they are interested in continuing a partnership.

Also, last year was the first year we did evaluations with campers, and we’re continuing that again this year. As you know, it’s hard in the grant world if you’re not getting critical data.

Q: Each student volunteer undergoes at least 100 hours of training before camp. What kinds of things do they learn to help them make the camp experience more relevant to a multicultural group of campers?

I don’t know if we necessarily train staff on that topic, because UCLA is so diverse and Los Angeles is so diverse, that students experience diversity every day. But we do address it — we have one meeting particularly devoted to “isms” where we cover that. And depending on the session, we may teach them about stereotypes — we’ll describe a certain person using stereotypes, and then put up a picture of the person that shows the complete opposite of what the students might have envisioned. Or we do a negative comment line, where it’s dark and there are guys and girls forming a tunnel and students walk through it blindfolded as they’re called racial slurs to see how it feels. We do those activities and have the staff think about it, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s about three to four hours’ worth of training, and we teach them lots of other things.

Q: What other things do you focus on during staff training?

A lot of it is behavior management and youth development. We talk about group development and the different stages of groups. We talk about appropriate consequences and positive reinforcement. The training also focuses on details about the camp itself, the procedures, and how it operates. We focus on games and songs and their importance. We emphasize the outcomes and how all the counselors and all the activity specialists can develop an outcomes-based program. And we also do team-building so that the volunteers are a cohesive group when they go to camp.

Q: Do you think the number of staff training hours you implement is a large draw as to why parents and agencies are so attracted to UniCamp?

I do. Some parents want to know all the details about the camp, and I think when those parents find out how much training our staff goes through, it’s calming to them. So it’s definitely a benefit.

And I think the other benefit of having so much staff training is that, by spending all that time together, our groups of counselors are cohesive when camp starts. And when they know each other so well, it helps the camp run better.

Q: What kind of marketing or programming do you employ to make the camp experience more appealing to people who might not be familiar with it?

I don’t think we’ve done anything in particular, but what I do think makes an especially big difference is working with the agencies or after-school programs. It’s difficult for us as a camp to meet with the parents and have them trust us and send their kids to us — they don’t know who we are, they don’t know who the counselors are. But it’s easier to form a relationship through the facilitator at the agency who works with them year-round, who has a relationship with them and their parents, who knows them, and who likes what we do. So if it’s that agency person that comes up and says, “I think you should send your kid to this camp,” parents are more likely to say, “Okay. I know this person already and I trust her, so I trust her judgment.” When agencies are able to do the advertising and recruiting for us, it makes a difference.

Q: What is it that makes UniCamp so successful at recruiting kids from underserved communities?

I think one reason that we keep people coming back to UniCamp is that our name has grown from word of mouth by our campers. They go home after having a good time and they tell their families, and then next year their cousins want to come, and it just balloons from there.

But all that just stems from having quality programming and emphasizing not just fun, but having kids take something away from the experience. I think our program has grown in that area. We started emphasizing outcome-based programming maybe a decade ago. And it’s funny, when volunteers from a decade ago come back and they see what we’re doing now, they notice that everything seems more professional than it did when they volunteered. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we keep getting kids — we provide very high-quality programming.