I've been carrying around this scanned photocopy for a long time and want to share it with you. I think it's a great summary of what the best camp counselors do.
This blog post is an excerpt from Not the Way You Have Always Done It, a book I recently published with Steve Maguire. Learn more about it here.
There’s a lot to learn during staff training, but some of the most crucial time you can devote is toward having staff members work together on maintenance projects. Even if you have the best facility crew in the country, save up some maintenance projects for the camp staff to do together, like spreading woodchips, raking trails, painting and more.
First off, maintenance time is an excellent bonding time for the staff. As they work together on simple maintenance projects, they have time to connect with each other and have conversations. Deliberately pair returning staff with new staff during these projects so staff members have another chance to create connections with their coworkers. I’ll never forget my first staff week as a camp counselor, when I was given the tedious task of weeding the sand volleyball court with Peter Marsden, a longtime returning staff member. Although the job itself was rather annoying, it was the first time I felt like I had made a friendship connection with another counselor. After that shared experience, Peter became someone I could go to with questions and trust.
Maintenance projects also serve as great large-group bonding activities. Not all of them are pleasant, and many require a great deal of problem-solving. Allowing a team of staff members to accomplish a task like getting all of the sailboats from the storage shed all the way down to the lake allows them to practice working together and gives them something to celebrate.
Finally, when staff work on maintenance projects, they begin to understand that they need to take ownership over camp. They first learn necessary skills to help upkeep the facility (even the basics, like how to use a staple gun) but they also learn that camp is our camp, and it’s all of our responsibility to take care of it. It’s hard work getting a camp up and running for summer, and hard work to keep it maintained. Giving staff a taste of pride and ownership in that work during staff training will certainly pay off in the long term!
PS - I’d like to give credit to Coert Ambrosino, who reminded me how important this is!
1. Tune up your car & tune up your body
These are things you probably won’t have time for at camp but will make you feel so much better going into the summer. Your car deserves a little love and so do your teeth, your hair and heck, even your nails if that’s your thing. If you’re really into following my lists, go ahead…get a massage! You won’t regret it.
2. Eat favorite foods you can’t get at camp
This sounds really dramatic and last-suppery…but seriously! Now’s the time to eat the foods you will miss during the camp season because they aren’t served at camp or in the remote surrounding areas. For me, that’s Thai food from Tuptim, my favorite Thai restaurant that is housed in an old Long John Silver’s (please refer to photo)!
3. Every time you find yourself doing a task, ask yourself, “Is this something that can be delegated?”
Now’s the time to prioritize. I remember finding myself two days before staff training scanning and photocopying hundreds of health forms. That is silly for two reasons…first because the computer can now do that for us (holla CampDoc and CampMinder, etc.) and second because I had a million more things that would be a better use of my energy for camp than making copies. Remember, there are lots of people (staff and volunteers!) who want to help—you just might have to ask. Make sure you’re sticking to your job description.
4. Spend time with your friends and family members
You may feel like there is a LOT to do before the start of camp. And there is! But if you think you don’t have time now, you really won’t have time once the staff and then the campers get there. Carve out some special time to spend with friends and/or family members before the beginning of staff training. Schedule a day off and take the whole thing (Gasp!)!! You need this and so do your people.
5. Remember that as soon as your 50 seasonal staff arrive, you will have 50 times the help that you had before!
Something magical happens when those seasonal staff arrive. There’s so many of them, and they are READY to go! While you have been working on camp planning for months, it’s their first taste of CAMP. Not only do they come in large numbers, they’re energized. Use this to not just help you get stuff done but to inspire you for that final push before camp begins.
(My mentor and predecessor Becca Schnetzer would always remind me of this, which would calm me down immensely in those last few days before staff training! Thanks, Becca!)
6. Put up that out of office assistant message
“Hi! Thanks for the note. We are now at camp getting ready for the summer season and training our wonderful staff. I check my emails about three times a day. If you have an urgent need, please call the camp office at 231-555-5555. Otherwise, I will do my best to return your email within 24 hours. Thanks, and happy camping!”
The pressure to be tied to your e-mail is now off! Feels nice, right??
7. Stuck on something? Seek out digital resources and online community
Check out resources like www.deepfun.com and www.ultimatecampresource.com for games and activities as well as online communities like the Summer Camp Professionals Facebook Group and www.gocamp.pro for advice and resources from peers.
8. Attend at least one potluck/barbecue (this is what non-camp adults do in the summer during the evenings)
Wow! A fascinating phenomenon! Attendance will help you understand life on the other side (anthropological necessity).
9. Go out in nature, and write your vision for the summer
So much of the time we are consumed with training our staff and helping them set goals that we fail to do so for ourselves. This year, I was introduced to the concept of Visioning, which is championed by the leadership at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, which is renowned for its commitment to customer service and servant leadership. Here’s what Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s co-founder/owner, has to say about the process:
“Though we spend most of our work lives responding to problems and opportunities as the world presents them to us, visioning comes from the inside out. It's about what you believe, what gets you excited, what you truly want to accomplish.”
Read this article and give it a go (instructions are about halfway through the article)
10. Look at your old camp pictures to remember why you do this
The more removed you get from the day-to-day interactions of camp, the harder it is to remember what camp means on the smallest yet most important level: the personal experience of each child and staff member who comes through your gates. It’s the 13-year-old who learns how to swim, who never thought she could do it. It’s the 16-year-old who feels for the first time in his life that a group accepts him for being who he is. And it’s the 8-year-old who is yet to find out that her friends in her first cabin will be her friends for life.
Go through your pictures and remember your stories. Remember that as the camp director, your efforts make these moments happen. And feel really good about that.
Dear Kurtz, The Real Wizard of Oz,
I give up. This is now my 10th summer watching our seasonal staff reinvent the wheel. Sure, they peppered it up with some streamers, put some new treads on it, and even took a turn with those fancy spinning rims. But it's still round and rolls down hill!!!
Each summer, I tell the program directors to document what they do so that we can do it better the next summer. Each fall, I try to decipher their notes and hold onto them for the next summer. Each winter, we start to get busy and lose track of the details. Each spring, we start planning from scratch.
I know, as the director, I am ultimately the one at fault here. But I've tried! We tried the Dropbox thing for a summer or two. Then it was GoogleDrive. I know there is probably some new technology that will help even more. But technology doesn't seem to be the problem, so what is?
Please help us move past the wheel and onto something new-fangled!
-Spinning Right Round
I respect you and what you’re trying to do here. I also think you are hilarious, my #1 fan and perhaps also known to this advice column as “The 102nd Dalmation” among other monikers. But I’m going to say something right now that might surprise and annoy you, but please note that it comes from a good place: I think it’s a positive thing that your seasonal staff reinvent the wheel every summer. That is part of the fun and the learning process your staff go through, and why working at camp is so educational and transformational for staff.
It does get difficult when we are full-time staff for awhile we have seasonal leadership that rotate through every couple of years. It seems unproductive and silly to go through the same planning processes over and over again, especially since we know how things should be done. We also sometimes feel like we are having the same conversations again and again (because we are) and wonder if we are progressing. We are progressing as individuals—but our audiences are different. And every few years, they start over again. Even though we are in the same place, these staff groups are new. And each staff group deserves to have the chance to create camp for their summer.
I arrived at camp in 2006 as a first-time counselor. I was given access to a supply of drama clothes, gallons of (somewhat) washable paint, a lot of tinfoil and that’s about it. I also had access to the amazing, creative minds of my coworkers. I think if I were given a book of “how to do things”, we would have been stymied. We wouldn’t have come up with amazing, creative ideas because we would have been proscribed a list of ideas from people we did not even know (I feel the same way about craft kits, but I digress). My friend Kate and I were able to create an amazing evening activity in my very first year as a counselor with an Ancient Egypt theme—no one had thought of it before—because we were passionate about the topic and we knew we could make it come to life for the campers.
We struggled, yes. I’m sure our supervisors cringed at some of our mistakes. But they let us figure things out for ourselves because that’s how we learned. We problem-solved when the walkie-talkies broke, when our hieroglyph was too easy and when our instructions were a little too confusing. We overcame these obstacles and loved the challenge. We felt important and affirmed because the idea was ours, and remained ours through completion.
But remember, the ownership and leadership these types of experiences provide for counselors are some of the most influential development opportunities we can give them.
I also realize you want to be productive here.
There are some things you can definitely standardize: Think opening and closing procedures of camp. Proper dishwashing practice. Check in process. These are things that you need to record and work on throughout the summer. There is no chance in H-E-double-hockey-stick that you will be able to pin your program directors down in the fall and have them remember every detail. My suggestion to you is this: take ownership over these projects. Make a master list of these systematic camp things and work to gather/upload the information during the summer.
Try to create the documents immediately after the event or process happens. For instance, at our first evening flag of each session, we have two series of announcements we always go through: one for the campers, and one for the staff at the staff huddle. The announcements are always the same. After the first staff flag of the summer, take your notecard that lists the announcements and take a picture of it (or create a typed file), uploading to Google Drive. If you keep track of these little things as they happen, it is much easier than creating an archive in October when everyone else’s thoughts are on their econ midterm and their fall formal date. You can even use digital tools to make it even easier—making an announcement in the dining hall? Record a video and upload it to Google Drive. It takes very little effort and you have a record of “how things are done.”
If you’re super ambitious, you can also think about creating reference pages for specific categories of camp projects, so more time is spent on the creative side of things. Take evening activities, for instance. We had a handful of evening activity styles at our camp: carnival games, station games, quest-style games, running games, etc. If you have an outline for how each of these types of games and how they work, as well as some suggested themes, that’s enough for the staff to use as a reference. They can then “invent the wheel” by innovating and adding their own themes.
Your job is to create overarching guidelines, and assist and support the counselors/seasonal staff as they get there on their own. And remember, sometimes there is a deep and meaningful truth in those quotes that you probably had as your AIM Away Message in the early 00s. I think this one especially applies:
P.S. If you have a question for me, please fill out this anonymous Google form!