When the camp-office phone rings, the administrative assistant hears from an upset parent complaining about the tardiness of the bus this morning.
The assistant relays a rather familiar message to me, stating, “The bus was late again at stop C.” In despair, I reply, “Not again!” Then I declare, “That’s it, today’s the day I’ll ‘fix’ this transportation issue.”
In the next few minutes, I clear a 6-foot banquet table (a big problem), and brew a fresh pot of extra-strength coffee. Armed with a town map, a list of campers’ addresses, the bus route and an extra-large cup of coffee, I’m ready to tackle the problem.
I lay the map on the table and begin matching campers’ addresses with the bus stops on the route. Halfway through this tedious exercise, my head is pounding.
After a large gulp of coffee, I exclaim, “Is it possible that the last 12 campers on the route could live so far away from one another?”
Perhaps I should have paid more attention in statistics when the topic of controlling variables was covered. The issue actually becomes one of those dreadful statistical word problems: “Twelve campers live approximately 13 miles away from one another, and six bus stops exist; there is one bus and one driver who arrives at the last of the two stops at 9:10 a.m., even though camp starts at 9:00 a.m.”
Should the bus leave earlier, or should there be another bus stop (of course, this will cost more money), or should parent(s)/guardian(s) drive campers to camp? Or do I delegate this task to the program director, thinking a second functioning brain can only help to arrive at a solution.
Venturing Out Of The Camp Office
On my quest, I discover the youngest group of campers on a journey of their own. From a distance, I notice 4-year-old children mesmerized by their counselor. I move closer to listen without disturbing the group.
The counselor, Paul, is explaining how “Ted the Bear” doesn’t come out during the day because he is afraid of children. The campers begin describing Ted. One says, “He’s over 6 feet tall.” Another adds, “Ted wears an orange hat. Right, Paul?” Rather intrigued by Ted, I forget my search for the program director.
Reluctantly, I leave the group, wishing I could hear more about Ted the Bear. Further on, I notice Group 2 sitting with another counselor, Chris. I assume he’s discussing “sharing” with the 6-year-olds, but as I approach to add my camp-director words of wisdom, I see that he’s actually explaining that he and Paul know Ted the Bear very well because they live at camp (even though this is a day camp).
At night they toast marshmallows together and tell stories. The campers are curious, wondering, “Is it dark at camp at night, Chris?” Another camper asks, “What does Ted eat at night?” Chris replies, “Ted is a vegetarian.” I am beginning to wonder about this infusion of Ted into the camp.
At lunch, I approach the program director and inquire about Ted; she, of course, is very knowledgeable about the camp’s newfound friend. As with most days at camp, I have become distracted from my “to-do list.” Today, however, I learned a great deal about the culture of the camp, the creativity of the staff and the endless imaginations of the campers.
Two Weeks Later
As the days and weeks pass, sightings of Ted escalate: his footprints and hat appear on the back path. The campers write letters to Ted, inviting him to some of the upcoming special events. Parent(s)/guardian(s) send extra carrots in their campers’ lunch bags with notes attached, “For Ted the Bear.”
As week 5 of the summer season arrives, years of experience remind me to check for signs of fatigue in staff members, as well as in myself. One morning, I am wide awake as my alarm clock sounds at 5:00 a.m., for I need to set up a tent this morning. Today, Paul and Chris will prove to the campers that the counselors really do live at camp.
By 6:00 a.m., I am assembling the tent on the back deck. As campers walk by the deck after morning announcements, they will certainly notice the domed tent. Chris and Paul arrive at 8:00 a.m. in their pajamas, and quickly report to the back deck, before the early-morning campers see them.
Of course, when the two lead counselors are not present at morning announcements, curious minds lead to questions about their absence. I purposely delay the announcements, and as I walk down the back path, I hear several campers asking, “Where’s Paul?” Other campers add, “Maybe Chris is sick.”
As I approach the main field for the announcements, the administrative assistant nudges me and states, “A mom just called from her cell phone to let us know that Bus C just reached the last stop and will be late because of the traffic.”
Without a second’s thought, I reply, “Call that parent and let her know that I will not start camp until Bus C arrives. Later on, please call the bus company and ask the driver if he’s willing to pick up the campers at the last two bus stops first.” I think to myself, “That’s it, doing the route backwards will alter the route into camp and avoid the traffic on the highway!”
Bus C arrives, and I bellow, “Good morning, campers!” After the announcements, the campers proceed indoors to put their bags away. There is still some gossip about Chris and Paul’s absence. As the campers approach the deck, the tent becomes a curiosity.
Next, Paul and Chris’s alarm clock sounds, and they stumble out of the tent. The campers, rather amused by this, begin to form their own assumptions. One camper exclaims, “Paul and Chris really do live at camp!” Another camper asks, “Do you think that they toasted marshmallows last night with Ted the Bear?”
One Week Later
Paul arrives in the camp office earlier than usual this morning (not in his pajamas), and states, “I have this rather crazy idea.” Four weeks ago, I may have reluctantly listened to his idea, but on the sixth week of camp Paul has my undivided attention. After all, shouldn’t the person who crafted part of our camp culture with Ted be given the chance to make his proposal?
Later, as I’m adding a few last-minute notes to the morning-announcement agenda, the administrative assistant approaches me and says. “A parent of a camper on Bus C called; she wanted to thank you for switching the route. She’s very happy her children arrived to camp on time.”
I reply, “She shouldn’t thank me, she should thank Ted!” The administrative assistant inquires, “We don’t have any counselors named Ted. Who’s Ted?” Astonished, I respond, “You need to get out of the office more often.”
I share this experience with fellow camp administrators as a reminder to step outside of the office and learn about the energy and creativity that staff members bring to the camp community.
My intention is not to belittle the daunting tasks and duties of administrators, nor do I intend to imply that customer service and the safety of campers are to be marginalized. Customer service and making camp a safe place are the first priorities.
Instead, I encourage administrators to take a deeper look at what the camp culture has to offer both campers and staff. For eight weeks, we don’t rely on television or computer images to entertain us; instead we use our imaginations and playful spirit.
Positive energy stimulates positive thinking. Yes, the refrigerator will break and all of the food will have to be packed into coolers, and you will be on a first-name basis with the clerk at the corner store where you have to run every day to buy ice.
And the pool will appear to have a green tint to it, making it difficult to see the 5-inch disk at the bottom, and you will have to cancel swim.
Despite the energy and time put into maintaining the grass on the main field, all that’s left by week 6 are straw and dirt. One can blame the lack of thick, green grass on 100 campers playing games on it or the nine-day drought. It’s less stressful, however, to say, “We got rid of the grass because Ted has hay fever.”
Balance your days with administrative duties and the positive energy that camp brings. Once this energy opens your mind, you begin to think “outside the box.” Without ever sacrificing quality, ask, “Is this worth getting stressed over?”
Finally, realize that, in the years to follow, campers will not remember the day swimming was cancelled, but they will never forget something as simple as “Ted.”
Ann Marie Gallo, Ed.D, EMT is the owner/director of Summer’s Edge Day Camp & Tennis School in Lexington, Mass., and an Associate Professor at Salem State University in the Sport and Movement Science Department in Salem, Mass. For more information, visit www.summersedgedaycamp.com.