Rocky Mountain High Learning

Camp Snapshot

The Learning Camp

Vail, Colo.

Cost per three-week session: $2,600

Cost per 10-day session: $1,800

Ages: 7-14

Say "Vail" and you immediately envision knee-deep powder snow in the alpine setting of its gargantuan Back Bowls. It's one of those rare settings where everyday people rub elbows with the rich and famous.

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But down the valley, near Edwards, Colo., something more enriching and adventurous is happening at The Learning Camp. The Learning Camp's mission is to build up kids with learning challenges -- such as dyslexia -- academically, while providing an adventure outlet in the unlimited outdoor opportunities of Colorado's high country.

The Learning Camp's owner, Ann Cathcart, had been a successful businesswoman with Marriot Corporation and as CEO of the Better Business Bureau of the mountain states.

In the midst of this success Cathcart found out that her first-grade son had a learning disability, which threw her corporate and personal life into turmoil.

"By third grade we were really wrought with what to do, so I resigned, not sure what I was going to do next," recalls Cathcart. "In the meantime I was looking for summer camps to send my son to that didn't have children with behavioral and emotional disorders. I was looking for an adventure camp with academics for children who learn differently, and I couldn't find it."

Cathcart decided she would create her own. With a proven business background and camp counselor experience, Cathcart rung up her credit cards to the max and opened an academic day camp to help learning-challenged kids six years ago.

"The first year was very successful in the realm of first-year day camps and I convinced a bank, based mostly on my business background, to give me a loan so that I could start an overnight camp," says Cathcart.

Running Down a Dream

Cathcart soon found that financial backing was easy compared to wrangling through the net that is local government. This was particularly onerous in a county used to giving the green light for multi-million dollar estates and condo complexes.

Proposing a summer academic/adventure camp for learning-challenged kids was almost like asking for beachfront property in Kansas, but Cathcart's dogged determination and business background took over.

Cathcart cites a "communication style that portrays me as a negotiator and a mediator. I kept trying to bring people to the middle instead of walking away when I heard no, or overreacting."

Three keys to Cathcart's success in negotiating the bureaucratic minefields that threatened to delay and even squelch her camp from the beginning was the refusal to take no for an answer, a solid business plan, and the aforementioned negotiation and mediation skills.

"We had a situation where this engineer from the county said that the state of Colorado had to approve our access and it would be three months before they could, and I didn't have three months. We were opening in three weeks!" says Cathcart.

"I could've screamed and hung up on him and not opened that summer, but I went in and begged," she laughs. "The lessons in dealing with government are to keep your sense of humor, don't lose your temper and don't burn bridges."

A simple, mission-focused business plan was also instrumental, and continues to be instrumental, as The Learning Camp moves forward and expands.

"One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was to do three business plans and budgets with best, worst and average case scenarios. It really gets your head out of the clouds and makes you stop and think, okay, if the economy falls apart or if the Internet takes over the universe, will there still be a need for camps and will it be academically-based," says Cathcart. "Keep it simple -- who, what, where, why, when. What are your objectives? How are you going to accomplish them, and what's your time frame for accomplishing them? Then you need look at it every once in a while. If you have a mission statement with objectives clearly stated and someone throws something at you like, `Why don't you put in a skateboard ramp?' or something that's going to cost money, you can ask yourself if it's part of our mission. If you pull out that business plan and it's not part of your plan it makes it very clear that you can say no to that. It keeps you focused when fall business gets very thin."

World Wide Web

In those six years from day camp to overnight camp, The Learning Camp's rosters are full, and the kids come from all over the U.S. and the world from such diverse locales as Kenya and Japan.

The staff, comprised of professional educators, also comes from the U.S. and beyond. Most of this international success is the unique opportunity the camp offers for kids who need academic help.

While the camp and its mission sell themselves, the Internet has provided the worldwide forum it needs to attract such a diverse group of campers and counselors.

As Cathcart knows from personal experience, it's often difficult to find even local help for a child with learning challenges, so these days parents search the information database that is the World Wide Web.

"They find us through search engines and they usually type in kids camps or type in that particular learning difficulty, then put in summer camps and we pop up," says Cathcart. "I spent a lot of time spreading the word through the school systems in our state and speaking locally, but most of the people who have not been referred to us or returned have been through the Internet."

In addition to getting key words to pop up on searches, The Learning Camp uses camp listing and linking services to great success.

"They usually talk to me after they find us. There's a form on our page where if you're interested in information you can fill it out. We send them a packet of information, then they usually call," says Cathcart. "The packet includes articles written about our program, what our schedule is like and a detailed report of who my staff is, which I think is very important to parents."

Despite the recent spate of dot-com woes you find on NASDAQ, the true nature and value of the Internet to camps is shown in the microcosm of The Learning Camp.

"If I started this camp 20 years ago I think we'd be a struggling camp," says Cathcart. "But because of the Internet we are full every summer."

In addition to maintaining the site and Internet advertising, The Learning Camp gets the word out through local advertising and public relations and advertising in niche publications, like Colorado Parent and magazines that focus on learning difficulties.

The Bridge

At this point, the question lingers -- what does an academic adventure camp look like? First, it's comprised of three three-week sessions and one ten-day session for kids who've never been away from home for camp.

Cathcart is adamant about the necessity to provide three weeks of academics. It allows the staff the time necessary to work on and improve each child's scholastics while, as Cathcart puts it, "providing a bridge to the school year."

"This is a small camp; we take only 35 children a session. There are programs that take children with behavior and emotional disorders, and those are wonderful programs. Our program is not that," says Cathcart. "I tell parents that their kids aren't going to move ahead a grade level. Their own belief in their abilities will come ahead and they'll get a different understanding of their abilities after working with us for three weeks on reading, writing and math."

The academic setting for the 7-14 year olds who attend is "cushioned" by the adventure aspect. Studies are supervised from breakfast to lunch in a style that Cathcart says reinforces the basics, while opening up creativity in learning.

The scholastics are held outdoors in "study nooks", where reading, writing and arithmetic get their due. After lunch the adventure begins and The Learning Camp turns into a traditional camp with a Rocky Mountain twist.

Cathcart offers a short list of what campers can expect to do after lunch, including, "Rock climbing, river rafting, horseback riding, swimming, hiking, fishing, fossil hunting, basketball, soccer; you know, fun stuff. We do fire circles at night, marshmallow roasts, camp games and skits; all the stuff that goes with camp, so it's not like summer school to anyone," she says. "They're going all over the place, like Glenwood Springs, Routt National Forest and the top of Vail mountain. We've hiked to the top of Notch Mountain at 13,500 feet, across from the Mount of the Holy Cross, and all our campers made it."

Adventure is an integral part of the cushion that provides an outlet for the often intense studies that happen between breakfast and lunch. It also helps them with their social and teamwork skills.

Phase Three

The Learning Camp is in the third phase of its development. Phase one was the day camp to gauge interest in the concept. Phase two was a five-year program with the camp located on leased land.

This was also the time to figure out "if we were successful, if we enjoyed doing it, if we were good at and proud of it," says Cathcart. "And if that was the case then we would take it to the third level."

This third level is where The Learning Camp finds itself as it approaches its sixth summer, which begins in June, and Cathcart characterizes it as a "major investment, where we'll purchase 36 acres surrounded by Bureau of Land Management land, build buildings, the whole nine yards. For example, the kids live in yurts. I love that and I'll do that next time, but I'll have nice decks for the yurts, with chairs, a big lodge -- just things we didn't have this last time around."

Phase three could also include a session around Christmas and family seminars year-round. An integral part of The Learning Camp's mission is to be a resource for parents who are often at their wit's end.

Toward that goal, Cathcart has set up The Learning Foundation, which seeks corporate and individual sponsorship to scholarship low-income kids who struggle with their learning.

"I spend so much of my day -- when I'm not fundraising, planning, doing budgets or interviewing staff -- on the phone with mothers and fathers talking to them about their kids," says Cathcart. "I love being a resource for parents, because I didn't have any resources when I was looking for help for my son."

Bryan BuchkoComment