"I really love this time of year": A Presummer Interview with Eli Cochran


Jack Schott and I are starting on a new interview project as part of The Summer Camp Society to learn how some of the best camp pros we know get their head in the game before the roller-coaster of summer starts.  We begin this series by talking with Eli Cochran, the executive director of YMCA Camp Ernst in Burlington, Kentucky.  Eli is a role model, friend and a true champion of the camping movement.  We are excited to have stolen a few minutes from her busy schedule to get her wisdom for this blog series.  Enjoy!

What is your best advice of how to prepare professionally for camp in these last few weeks?

I think that probably the #1 thing to do is to make sure the team that is surrounding you is a group of people you trust.  Not just that you trust them with your own life, but you trust them to answer questions the same way that you would, so that you can let some things go and know that they will be handled as you would want them to do be.

But how do you do that?

I think then the number one thing is building relationships—but how do you do that at the last minute?  That’s really hard.  If you haven’t had the opportunity to do it leading up to now in early May, then you need to figure out what you need to do to bridge the gap between you trusting at least one other person versus feeling like you’re all in it by yourself.  To survive, there has to be somebody else that you can lean on…but it’s better if there are five other people!

How do you get prepared for camp?

I have been thinking about looking forward to eating all my meals in the dining hall again because I love that!  But thinking about what I want to have on hand to eat which is a healthy choice, whether that means having something in my office or having something the kitchen team prepares that’s healthy for someone who is eating in the dining hall for four months.  So that is really a pragmatic thing!

I also like to spend a little bit of time thinking about culture and what needs to be done to set the tone for the summer.  Whether it’s an inspirational theme for staff meetings each week or it’s a book I’ve read recently that I think I want to share with folks, I think that sometimes there’s a gap in what we as camp professionals learn at the conferences we go to or in all of our reading or study or sharing, and it’s not as easy to translate that to the counselors who are actually delivering the mission every day.  

I like to review the things I learned in November or January at conferences that I really want to impart, and think about how do I do that in a creative way that fits into or particular culture at this camp.  I have to plan that in early May because if I leave it til the first week of June it’s too late!

As crazy as it really is, I really love this time of year.  When the leaves come on the trees, it means summer campers are going to be here soon!  To keep it in perspective, I have also been thinking about times during each week of summer camp where I am going to be directly with kids.  Like at 3 o’clock on Mondays I’m going to go meet with the teens in the Crew program and I know that it’s on my calendar.

So you’re making a plan for when you’re going to interact with the kids?

Sometimes it’s a plan for a formal leadership talk, or sometimes I know that on Tuesday at 4 o'clock I want to go play foursquare with the nine year olds.  Otherwise I sit in my office and there are always going to be more emails to answer and problems to solve, and the time is just going to slip away.

What do you do to prep personally for camp?

Well I just got back from California last night, so I highly recommend a vacation before the crazy time.  Even if it’s the last day off you’re going to take—whether it’s organizing the garage or being at the beach—having your last minute of personal time so you can really fully be in [to camp] when it starts.  I think the only way to do this is to be fully in.

Do you have any advice as a parent?

I’d say it’s a lot easier when you’re kids are older, so hang in there!  To the parents of young kids—just hang in there because it will be worth it.  Having my kids grow up at camp has been a really amazing gift, and it was hard when they were really little.  But they’re not little any more, so that’s made it a little easier!

Anything else you want to add?

I remember I like to think back to when I was a teenager and thinking about when I was ready to come serve at camp for a summer, and just remember that I was excited to be here, and I don’t want to forget that—I don’t want to lose that.  I have a picture of my three closest friends at camp from when we were teenagers and I always look at that.  I’m going to have a whole bunch of those kids working here this summer, and this is why we do it.

Eli (R) and friends at Camp Ernst, circa 1994

Eli (R) and friends at Camp Ernst, circa 1994

The Summer Camp Society is a semester-long learning cooperative for emerging camp professionals. We empower emerging leaders to give all kids the best possible camp experience. 

The first cohort group will start the program in September 2017. Join us--we are accepting applications now through June 1.  Click here to learn more.