Widening the Circle: Guidelines for Attracting the Latino Population to a Summer Overnight Camp

Marina Lukanina
March 2008

Currently, the camp community is particularly concerned about the future camp market — who will be the upcoming consumer? In which direction are current realities pushing the development of a camp movement? "It is said that by mid-century non-Hispanic Caucasians will be the minority. If this is true, and we look at today's camp market, we are challenged with the reality that our camp market is fading . . . ." said Peg Smith, American Camp Association (ACA) chief executive officer (Smith 2006).

As the Latino population continues to grow in the United States, youth-serving agencies, including camps, are faced with a challenge to find new ways to deliver education and recreation programs to them. Many organizations are not aware of specific outreach strategies, which are necessary to reach out to Latinos; they do not know what programs are needed or how to deliver them to this specific group. The key issue that should be currently addressed is the successful incorporation of Latino children and youth, as well as the majority of their foreign-born parents, into the economic, social, cultural, and political life of the region.

Understanding Latino Parents

To understand the main reservations that Latino parents have towards an overnight summer camp, as well as to gauge their perception and come up with marketing and program approaches to this segment, a specially-designed survey was distributed in the Chicago area. Chicago has a great diversity of Latino populations by their country of origin. It has the second largest Mexican population in the United States, with Puerto Ricans being the second largest group after Mexican. According to the U.S. Census, more than half of Chicago-area Latinos are U.S.-born. While nearly two-thirds of adult Latinos are foreignborn, more than 80 percent of Latino children were born in the United States based on the Census data of 2000.

The survey was distributed during April and May of 2007. The survey represented a non-random sample of 209 adults and tested key issues that are of a high concern to Latino parents when determining whether to send their children to camp. The key concerns evaluated in the study were the following: the extent of parents' willingness to even consider a summer camp as a possible recreation option for their children, the importance of having someone Latino on staff and being surrounded by children of the same or diverse ethnic background, how often parents need to communicate with their children while the camp is in session, the amount of money parents are willing to spend on a one-week overnight camp, and the distance between the home and the camp. To assess the marketing habits of Latino parents, the question about the importance of camp marketing materials being both in Spanish and English was raised.

Feedback about camp programming was asked through an open question, which asked the Latino parents to identify three main activities that they would like their children to be exposed to while being at a camp. At the end of the survey, Latino parents were asked to provide overall feedback as to what benefits they would like their children to gain from a summer camp. The conclusion of the survey focused on demographic data of the applicants, e.g., whether they were U.S. or foreign-born, their countries of origin, and the amount of time spent in the U.S.


Since "camp" has never been part of Latino culture, it takes a double effort to help Latino parents understand the actual benefits of a summer camp in the lives of their children. It is crucial to establish the necessary level of trust between parents and summer camps. It will take extra effort to convince Latino parents to even consider the idea of parting with their precious creations for a week or even two weeks.

"Summer camp is not part of the Hispanic culture. Many Hispanic parents to this date are still adamantly opposed to sending their children away for two weeks, and even a greater number of Hispanic kids really don't want to change the comfort zone of their homes for the uncertainty of two weeks away from their families," says David Lira Leveron, retired director of Camp Operations at the Union League Boys and Girls Clubs Camp located in Salem, Wisconsin (Leveron 2004).

In the Chicago survey analysis (see page 58), it seemed important to distinguish the difference between U.S.-born Latinos and foreign-born Latinos and their attitudes and perceptions of the concept of a summer overnight camp. However, first and foremost, he/she is a parent and has to be approached from the perspective of a parent, Latino parent, and only afterwards, as a parent who is either foreign or U.S. born.

For any parent of any nationality, the safety of their children is of primary concern. It is understandable that for Latino parents, who have been accustomed to always being with their children, the prospect of sending them to a totally unknown place called a "summer camp" seems like a scary idea. Camp directors who want to attract Latino campers to their camps should ascertain that every piece of their marketing and communications strategies sends a very specific message to Latino parents. Camp directors should "sell the idea" of a summer camp to Latino parents, making it look attractive and credible in their eyes.

Many organizations that have good strategic management systems are already putting Latinos in the focus of their marketing efforts. Camps, more than any other organization, should do the same. A summer camp is a wonderful experience that leaves a profound and positive influence in a child's life. The latest research done by ACA proves this with statistical data from more than two hundred camps. Being youth-serving organizations, camps should pay particular attention to reaching out to Latino campers. To continue making a positive impact in children's lives, even to a larger population, camps need to reassure Latino parents that the camp environment is safe and fun.

Developing Cultural Relevancy

When working with Latino parents, it is first necessary to understand their cultural background. Cultural relevancy is the most effective way to make the message resonate with Latinos. Latinos respond most effectively to a message that reinforces the values, lifestyle, and behaviors that are familiar. Having the camp's marketing materials and camp Web site bilingual as a courtesy to their heritage is a good marketing strategy. It is a mistake, however, to assume that using "Spanish only" materials will help to reach more Latinos. Not all Latinos necessarily speak Spanish. Offering an option to choose the language on the camp's Web site or by having a bilingual camp brochure, camps will immediately get their information across to many more Latino parents.

Many camps in Mexico devote certain areas of their Web sites to safety issues. The camp, Icaros Campamentos, has on its home page a link called "Seguridad" (Security) where details regarding how the camp maintains a safe environment at the camp, who takes care of the children, etc., are explained. By addressing this issue so clearly on its Web site, this camp's management is acknowledging the high degree of importance it places on children's safety. American camps should also explore various opportunities to address this same issue on their Web sites, in their camp brochures, parents' handbooks, and during camp fairs and personal meetings with parents.

Bilingual Staff 
A vast majority of parents surveyed indicated that they would prefer to have someone on camp staff be Latino. Despite the fact that the majority indicated they want their children to be in a diverse ethnic environment, Latino parents still feel more comfortable if someone from the same cultural and ethnic background serves as a camp staff person. Camp staff should be bilingual to clarify to parents of different acculturation levels all the possible questions and doubts that they might have about a camp. It gives them a sense of reassurance that there are people on staff who will be able to provide the culturally-appropriate sense of comfort to their children, if needed.

Many opportunities exist now to have Latino counselors on staff. An international placement agency, Camp Counselors U.S.A., has just recently opened its office in Mexico City. Mexican counselors are now able to come and work in American camps along with people from all over the world.

Staying in touch with their children to make sure that they are safe and happy is one of the main obstacles Latino parents see in sending them to camp. In a typical U.S. summer camp, children are rarely allowed to call home — no cell phones are permitted, access to the Internet and e-mail is limited, and parents are usually not allowed to visit their children unless they make prior arrangements with camp administration. Some camp directors think that this is the best way to help children adapt to a new environment and prevent excessive homesickness. This tactic does not work well with Latino parents. The majority of them explicitly expressed that they would consider sending their children to a summer camp only if they were allowed to communicate with them on a regular basis. A smaller percentage indicated that they do not necessarily need to talk to their children directly, but they would like to receive updates from camp staff. The camp's communication policy should take into account that Latino parents need to be constantly reassured that their children are safe and happy.

This issue was well addressed by the Union League Boys and Girls Clubs Camp. The camp director found an interesting solution: even though children at that camp are rarely allowed to call home, parents in turn can call their children during mealtimes. The outcome of this policy was that every year parents start calling less and less. This camp also permitted parents to come for a visit at the camp by adopting "an open-door policy." The camp went even further and offered those parents who were unable to get to the camp themselves, free transportation to and from the camp. Obviously, being so responsive to the primary concerns of parents led to a significant increase in the number of Latino campers attending this camp for the past few years. An open-door camp policy should establish the right channels of communication for children, parents, and the camp staff. As a way to make parents more comfortable about sending their children away, a phone call from a camp staff member on the arrival day to parents can serve as an excellent tool. Camps can set up a computer lab where children could write e-mails to their parents without having to be online. All the letters would be later sent by a camp staff member. Counselors should be encouraged to write little notes to the parents about their campers throughout the entire summer. By having access to various types of communication, parents would definitely feel more at ease sending their children away.

". . . It takes ten satisfied parents to convince one doubtful parent to finally send his/ her children to camp. At the same time, it takes one unsatisfied parent to convince ten parents not to send their kids to camp (Leveron 2004)." This was clearly proven by the Chicago survey. A large number of parents put "word-of-mouth" as the main vehicle of their decision-making process of choosing a summer camp. Camps should strive for building real partnerships with parents by actively involving them in camp life. Motivate camper parents to volunteer at your camp or ask for their input about current programming. Camps can also partner with schools in the communities, organizing educational presentations about the value of a camp experience and camp programs. Another suggestion is to offer a family week-end trip when parents could come and experience a summer camp together with their children. By familiarizing themselves with the concept of a summer camp and by getting to know the camp director and the facility, chances are much higher that these parents will send their children to a camp. It should not be neglected that Latinos tend to be extremely receptive to the testimonials of celebrities.

Session Length and Fees 
The majority of survey responses showed that Latino parents would be comfortable letting their children go away to camp for no more than two weeks. Camps should organize their summer schedule by offering one- and two-week sessions.

A vast majority of respondents indicated that they were not willing to pay more than $100 for a one-week camp. However, there was a small sample of people (16 out of 209) who mentioned they would be willing to spend over $300 for a one-week camp. Camps must distinguish whether their recruitment goal is to target as many Latinos as possible or whether the goal is to target specific groups of Latinos at certain income levels. Survey results showed that the more children there are in the family, the more likely parents are willing to send them to a summer camp. Camps are strongly encouraged to offer an attractive discount system for siblings attending the same camp.

Today, many Latino parents still need to be educated about the value of a summer camp. Camps first need to make their own "investments" in earning and establishing credibility in Latino parents' eyes.

The last question in the survey asked parents to express what it is that they wanted their children to get out of a summer camp. What specific benefits would they hope their children would gain from this experience? There was a very consistent pattern identified in the answers to this question. The main benefits that parents hoped their children would enjoy were the ability to interact and communicate with each other, to become more disciplined and mature, and to become more responsible and independent.

Camp may be the only place left in our world that provides the everyday opportunity to influence young people in such a profound and positive way. "There are currently more than 12,000,000 Hispanic children in the U.S. whose parents need to be educated about the benefits of the camp experience (Leveron 2004)." Camps that are willing to continue being relevant today and tomorrow are highly encouraged to focus their attention on attracting the Latino population to a summer overnight camp.

Survey Analysis

Author's Note: 
I would like to express my gratitude to the people who supported my research efforts: Phillis Johnson, AEMM associate chairperson, Columbia College Chicago; Paulette Whitfield, graduate faculty, Columbia College Chicago; Gordie Kaplan, American Camp Association, Illinois, executive director; Jenifer Vargo, development director, Association House of Chicago; Lauren Smith, Out-of-School Time supervisor, Association House of Chicago; Angelica Gomez, The Learning Place supervisor, Association House of Chicago; Carmen M. Sanchez, principal of Irving Park Middle School; Hector Rodriguez, principal of Carman Buckner Elementary, Waukegan; and Dr. Ana Gil Garcia, associate professor of Northeastern Illinois University and President of Fulbright Chicago Chapter. My special thanks goes to David Leveron, retired director of camp operations, Union League Boys and Girls Clubs. Interacting closely with him for the past year and a half and being given a wonderful opportunity to work at his summer camp brought an incredible insight to my project and my overall understanding of Latino culture and particularly Latino parents.

Smith, P. (2006). "Letter from Peg," Camping Magazine, American Camp Association. November/December 2006. 
Masud-Piloto, F. "Latinos in the Midwest: Advancing in el Mero Medio," Dialogo, Center for Latino Research, DePaul University. Fall 2005 #9. 
Lira Leveron, D. (2004). "Outreaching to Diverse Communities: The Hispanic Community," Camping Magazine. American Camp Association, July/August 2004.

Marina Lukanina is a special projects coordinator at ASPIRA in Chicago and has served as an international counselor in American summer camps.

Originally published in the 2008 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.