Orient Before Orientation

Starting at a new camp is a difficult challenge to accept. Whether you're a counselor, a program director or a new camp director there's a lot to be done and a lot to be learned. Orientation for new staff and directors is essential to make them feel more comfortable.

First Impressions

The first camp I attended as a counselor began with arriving on the property with my two best friends. No one greeted us; in fact, no one was in the office.

The camp director had asked us to come before staff training began, and we had arrived two days before to assist with setup. After half an hour of walking around we finally stopped a young man on a tractor and introduced ourselves. He pointed to a building and told us we could drop our things there.

We went to the cabin, that had not been opened since the previous summer, and opened the door to the most disgustingly dirty and animal-infested room you could imagine.

We would have left at that point if it were not for the fact that my best friend's grandfather had already left in the van. We spent a few hours setting up the cabin and then went walking to find a meal and other people.

This story doesn't seem to be very uncommon when I reminisce with fellow camp people about their beginnings. How can we do it better? Isn't it important that we do it better? How many camp directors have had people quit before or during staff training? I have.

It is very important that you treat your new staff as special on their first day as you made them feel during the interview when you asked them to come join your team.

Plan & Prepare

The better your staff feels about their decision to join your team the better they will perform. Plan, prepare, educate and train your team.

Planning begins before you leave for your recruitment trips and before you even have your first interview. As a planning team, have an idea of what type of counselor you are looking for.

Second, how is it going to work? The process starts with recruiting, and moves on to interviewing, screening and references, then agreements are signed.

Believe it or not, it's after signing that the hard part begins! The responsibility does not end after you get the staff agreement.

I signed for my first counselor job in April. I never heard another word from the camp until the day I arrived on the property. That's not right.

Have a plan to stay in touch with those who are already coming. A simple newsletter or email would do the trick. Your staff member will feel more welcome and less stressed by the simplest of communication from your staff.

Make sure you confirm when they are coming and that someone will be there to greet them! Try and have their day, from the moment they arrive, organized.

Look for details, including where they are staying and what they will be doing. This presents your camp and you in the best light -- organized, caring and responsible.

I have heard of many ideas to help with this process, from posters in their cabins, welcome cards waiting for them, a T-shirt and a schedule upon their arrival… The goal is that they don't get the feeling they're lost or ignored.

Educate Before Training

Give your staff member, or even a new program director, a history of your camp to read before they arrive. When they arrive give them a tour and point out the distinct landmarks of your camp.

Show them places, like the council ring, chapel and dining hall. If there are special names associated with the places, tell the story.

Give your staff ownership of their new home by telling them the stories. Do anything you can to make the transition into their new home easier. This will relax them and give them confidence.

During staff training week try not to cover only the important subjects, but make sure the history, stories, and traditions of your camp are brought to life for those attending. Have alumni come in and tell their stories and go on history tours of the camp.

This access to the past gives your new team insight into the place they have become a part of, and will help them in sharing with the campers how special they should feel to be a part of the story that makes up your camp.

It is essential, especially if you're a new camp director, that you take the time from the beginning to learn about the place where you have taken the helm. Meet with alumni and listen!

The first impulse is to impress alumni with all that you will do during your time as camp director… I know, I do it too! The truth is, they want to share with you how special this place is to them. They want to get a sense of the person you are as the director -- the person whom they are trusting to protect a place so very special to them.

Meet with alumni and get their impressions, feelings and stories. This knowledge will also give you the insight to work with new counselors and the old.

Sometimes staff comes to a place where there has been so much turnover and so little record keeping, that the stories of the past have been temporarily lost. We could talk about alumni development at this point, but let's stay focused on what you can do.

Start by finding alumni. Call past employees from the payroll records, call campers and their parents to ask their favorite things about camp, read old staff manuals, find old meeting minutes, and anything that can give you a glimpse into the past.

Then merge what you can find with your own experience to create the next year. Tradition is the repeating of an event or occasion from year to year. The goal is to have traditions as old as the camp. If not, then anything that lasts three to four years becomes tradition to your campers.

As you start your new job or reevaluate your current one, begin the first day recording and writing your camp's history down. Use curriculum guide books to record activities and events, have people write down their stories and create a camp scrap book or story book. Record, record, record. Give your camp a paper (or computer file) history. By doing this you provide a camp history and tradition.


1. Plan your strategy for staff recruitment and orientation.

Remember that your responsibility begins when they sign the agreement.

2. Prepare for staff's arrival and keep them busy and educated.

3. Train them with a mix of skills and stories, and if you need stories to tell, then find them before they arrive.

Orienting your team and directors is the pace setter for your summer, and you as the director or administrator are the pace car.

Good luck with the race!

Jeff Merhige is the executive director of YMCA Camp Kern, Dayton YMCA, Dayton, Ohio.

Bryan BuchkoComment