Nine months are spent planning, recruiting, stocking inventory, and training. Then it happens… summertime. The kids arrive and with them arrives all the fun, worries and unexpected changes to all of your goals and plans. Summer camp can be one of the most vivacious occupations and wildest animals to manage.
Try this for some unexpected challenges… Three days after staff training, four counselors break almost every rule they were drilled about during training. Your head chef walks out of her agreement and job during the middle of dinner in the sixth week of camp. You lose your ranch director because you fire her boyfriend, then you lose your second ranch director because she can't handle the pressure…
Your international counselor, who doesn't speak any English (even though she was rated as excellent), is here under false pretenses. She wanted to come to America to learn about cooking so she can get a better job back home, not to work with children…
Your waterfront director bails out during staff training to take a better job offer back home, so you place the next-best qualified, but she doesn't like the water.
Now that's a summer of surprises, but here's the good news… The summer turned out to be one of the best the director and the staff ever had, and more importantly, they delivered a nearly flawless and extremely fun and exciting summer for the campers.
Unbelievable? It is. But it's also true. Summer camp is the essence of "working with a team, for a common goal."
If the team was hired and trained with a strong desire to work with the idea of Kids First, anything is possible. So it was with this staff.
Flexibility & Integrity
In camping you have to roll with the punches without getting knocked out. When four staff members break all of the rules in the first week you have to set the tone for the summer and make it clear to your staff that you meant what you said.
In this case, some lost their jobs, others were suspended, but all were treated fairly and the entire staff knew it. Those particular infractions were not violated, at all, for the rest of the summer.
As a director, if you panic or overreact due to anger you risk losing the faith of you team and their belief in your judgment. Even in the face of terrible stupidity a good summer camp director must remain devoted to the children and their interests first, and second, your team.
This is the one job that 18-22 year olds take on where it is guaranteed they are going to make mistakes. They are not professional counselors or advisors.
They are young men and woman who are searching for a good time and are working with kids to see if they want to keep working with children, or they're searching for something to challenge who they are in the ongoing search for their own identity.
We as camp managers can't panic. We must teach! And we must teach good judgment, fairness and the idea of unconditionally caring for others without requesting too much in return.
We give campers unconditional care and expect them only to follow our basic principles and goals of camping. We give staff unconditional support and confidence as long as they give their all, and keep the kids first in their thinking.
In all of this understanding it is essential that we do not compromise our integrity, that of the camp and that of the organization we represent.
Go the extra distance for your campers and your staff, but not so far that you give away the basic integrity that brings campers and staff to you.
If your favorite counselor messes up… Treat them as you would anyone else, even if it means losing you're known best. Why? A new counselor will rise to be the best.
Set the standard, keep to it and your staff will rise to meet it. Lower the bar on occasion and it will be expected that you will continue to lower it. Equal treatment allows your new staff and old staff to meet in common ground.
This summer a head cook walked out of a kitchen operation during dinner. There were three weeks left in the summer. What do you do? Close camp? No.
The assistant cooks, who didn't speak English, did the best they could, the camp director took over ordering the food and the counselors rotated in shifts into the kitchen to prepare the meals. Impressive? It was.
They finished the summer and maintained all health department requirements. More than that, the kids loved it! It meant a little extra work, and it meant a lot of creative scheduling, but in the end it was worth it, and it brought the team extremely close together.
As a director, a sense of pride rises up when you know you are working with a team you can count on.
Stay focused, plan for the unexpected, look among your staff for leaders who are not yet leaders. Never panic! Never compromise your integrity or that of others.
Recruit with heart and clear expectations. Train with purpose and clarity. Lead with integrity and consistency. But most of all don't be afraid to go the extra yard.
Summer camp has always been about children! This requires a whole lot of work, a whole lot of fun, unexpected adventures, and not a lot of money. Accept that truth and all things with camping staff are possible.
The camp with the adventures mentioned above did just that and ended the summer close, tired and feeling proud that their campers left after having the times of their lives.
Oh yeah, we can't forget the last ingredient that is owned by the camping world… Magic. Camps are a magical place where we do nothing but good for others.
When trying to explain camping we can never leave out the fact that our camps each have a unique magic to it. Made up of tradition, people, history and the spirit of years of good people doing a great thing for others. How else to describe our camps and our staff as anything else but magical!