Jason Smith is the executive director at YMCA Camp Kitaki in Louisville, Nebraska. He's been at Kitaki since he was a kid, but even though he's a "lifer", he's not afraid of change. One of the things we love the most about Jason is that he believes in tradition but he champions innovation. Out of this balance have come some of the coolest ideas we've seen in camping as well as incredible growth for the Kitaki community.
What are some things you do to prepare professionally for camp?
I try to remind myself that everything is going to be OK as much as possible. In a lot of ways, the professional preparation this time of year takes care of itself and it’s the personal preparation I need to be reminded of. I try to find some time to not work and be OK with that, and that can be hard. I also try to find time to do things that I enjoy doing that I won’t have the opportunity to do during the summer, such as go out to restaurants and see friends I might not have time to see.
At this time of year, I also start categorizing things into categories. First, “this is absolutely critical”—meaning things that have to get done for camp to move forward. Then there’s the “I’d really love to get this done” category and then there’s the third category of “I’m just going to have to be OK that this is not going to get done until next season.” I try to be accepting and OK with the fact that some things to a lot of things might end up in that third category.
How many summers have you been working at Kitaki?
I started as a summer staff member in 1999. I did that until 2004, which was my first summer as a full-time staff member. I’ve been on full-time staff at Kitaki ever since.
So how do you keep it fresh? How do you keep up the love and energy for your work at camp?
I’ve been fairly fortunate that my job has changed a lot over that time—my title has changed, my responsibilities have changed, up until 2009 when I became executive director. At that time, I had to convince myself that it was OK that camp changed in either subtle or dramatic ways, but that it didn’t need to be what it was when I was a kid going to Kitaki.
If I recognized there were things I thought could be better, that it was OK to work on those and get rid of things that had been happening for a long time and make some changes. In some ways I think that if there’s anything I have had a small modicum of success with it’s actively trying not to be badly stuck in a rut with what’s going on at Kitaki. I think Camp Kitaki has always been a great camp, and it is becoming a fantastic camp. Even when we get to fantastic, there are even more things we can do to make it an even better camp. I think we are shooting for legendary status. I just give myself permission to change stuff!
What’s the biggest thorn in your side right now?
That is a very good question… the hardest thing right now is convincing everyone around me, with whatever positions they may have or not have in camp, whether they be parents or alumni, or whether they be my bosses at the association or members of the board of directors, what we’re trying to accomplish with camp and where we are going. It’s a lot of different people with a lot of different opinions, so bringing everybody into the same point of view and direction with what we want to do is a challenge. We’re at a point right now where our staff really have a good understanding and now it’s kind of widening that to those who do not spend a lot of time at camp but have a say in camp’s future or have feelings or emotions about camp’s past
That is definitely a high-level problem! Finally, what advice would you want to give to your younger self in your first years as a camp director?
If you do the right thing, no matter what, people will respect you for it, even if they disagree with it. People can tell where you’re motivations are coming from—they might disagree with decisions, but they will understand that you’re doing the thing that you believe to be best for camp and the people in camp.
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