Take Charge

By Jeffrey Merhige

Whenever you say yes to a new job in camping you inherit the good and bad of a camp's three main components -- staff, facility and traditions.

Each one of these three components can make or break a new director. All camps have a story and how you add your chapter to that camp's history book can go many ways, and a lot of that depends on the situation and the condition of the camp when you come on board.

A new director is the focus of rumors and speculation when they arrive at their new position. The staff that has been there waits to see what you're going to do, and, let's be honest, who will stay and who will go under the new director.

In my case I was the first non-homegrown director of camp Al-Gon-Quian in some years. The site directors had all been campers and were promoted up the ranks to serve as the camp director. There are positives and negatives to such an arrangement…

A camp's recent history is very intact because there is staff longevity and a greater retention rate of campers wanting to follow in the footsteps of their counselor idols.

However, the division between personal and professional is smeared and, in some cases, wiped away, because everyone has grown up together. Rules that are on paper may no longer apply or have any true consistency to them.

Also, the ability for new staff to join the ranks is nearly impossible because the circle of friends is so tight that you're lucky to keep new staff longer then a season.

In one of the very first meetings with the staff I had inherited the future program director told me to just relax and that they would spend the summer showing me how the camp operates. At this point some new directors might sit back and let the summer operation unfold.

Dangerous game! Why? Your ability to take charge is now hampered by your lack on getting involved and making adjustments that could help the program.

You are the director. Get involved; analyze how the program works presently and how it could be improved. Make the changes to show that you are in charge, have the right experience and are ready to lead the program.

Staff needs to know that there is a level of trust and confidence in their new leader. How is that trust and respect determined? By consistency and outright full disclosure of rules and standards. It is when your rules and standards are first broken that the staff decides if you are for real as an administrator.

Can they trust you? Are their boundaries where they know they are safe if they maintain them?

People need to know that they have a certain amount of control over their own destiny. Camp staff is much the same way. They need to know there are rules that are clear and they know the consequences if they are broken.

No matter the person or the position, let your best friend off and the rest of the staff loses trust in you and looks for the next exception.

This is a huge area of undertaking for any new director. You need to research the buildings on your campus. Take a walk and take notes on every building in your new facility.

At the same time ask yourself what the camp could use in the future, what it could do without, or what changes, if any, make sense.

As a director you need to create a road map of development, both in the program and the facility. These two areas must grow together each year following your goals. It is here that you start the process of strategic planning.

So, back to basics -- take notes and prepare priority lists of repairs and building needs. Take the repairs and build them into your daily and weekly maintenance program, which you can now write as a result of your notes.

The strategic planning will also force a new director to plan for revenue sources for their needs. What can be built into the operational budget? What can be a capital budget expense? What needs to be a donor item? Operational expenses should be planned as carefully as the day-to-day operation of the camp.

Capital expenses are usually from a capital budget. This budget stands outside of the operational but is sometimes fed by the depreciation expense that all directors should place in their budget.

When you fund depreciation you are putting your facility on the road to being maintained and improved as you use it. A new director should always remember that all things grow old and it costs to repair or replace. Plan for those needs.

A suggestion would be to try and add something very visible each year to the camp. After a few years campers and parents get excited to see what will be new this year. It helps to overcome the fear of change that so many go through when it comes to camps and camp tradition.

Change is the worst word you can use in a camp setting. It is worse than profanity! People fear it. Camps are terrified of it. But it is part of our nature and the natural order of things. Time goes on no matter what, and it forces change.

A new building will become an old building one day, and the favorite counselor one year will grow and move onto do something else the next. Each and every summer there will be a different makeup of campers! (If not, then you have no future.)

It is possible to change with the times without losing the identity that makes your camp so unique. How? Teach your young staff that change is okay. It doesn't mean dumping the past or the old ways, but modifying them. Having those traditions grows and evolves.

Our motto at our camp in 2000 was, "Change is inevitable but growth is optional!" We adopted this saying because if you refuse to face each New Year for its possibilities and uniqueness then you live in the past and add nothing.

Bring in new staff each year. Let them bring their ideas and ask them to merge them with their new home. Grow staff from your camper population. They carry the memories of their favorite times and the pass the oral history of your camp down to the next crop of would-be staffers.

Teach your staff to record the histories and favorite activities so that they can be passed along. Use the program books and curriculum guides discussed in last month's article.

Camp traditions tell the story of your camp and give it a unique persona for people to identify with and remember. But work each summer to grow those traditions to keep pace with the changing world and its requirements.

Some of the old traditions may not be acceptable in today's legal conscious world. Try not to just squash the tradition. Alter it; have it evolve.

We had a game called the Great Escape, which was a camp tradition for over 15 years. The game was basically a very difficult obstacle course, which involved a camp version of hazing.

Then, as you're probably aware, some well-publicized hazing incidents in the military and frat houses made anything resembling hazing a very bad idea. The game was immediately altered to make it a non-hazing type activity that was still fun and resembled the 15-year tradition.

Too many times people are quick to eliminate an activity versus evolving it to meet the needs of the times. Evolving traditions create less resistance in your staff and camper population. It even leads to a greater respect for your creativity.

Lastly, it is so very important that a new director creates a plan in all areas of the job, including financial, facility, program and personal.

Your plan will modify itself over the course of your job, but it will serve as a motivator and guide through the difficult times ahead.

A five-year plan is usually a great road map. You do not have to plan to stay at the camp or in the position for five years, but a five-year plan gives your vision enough time to slowly develop. It also allows you to sell your vision to volunteers and advisors, and allows those who may follow in your stead an idea of where you were headed.

Try to create a plan that survives and prospers even after you leave. Planning is an educational tool for you and those around you. Good luck.

Jeff Merhige is the Executive Director of YMCA Camp Widjiwagan in Nashville Tenn. Reach him at jmerhige@ymcamidtn.org.