The Recognition Factor

One of the most difficult management skills to learn is recognizing and appreciating staff. As directors we focus our energy on being effective and safe managers.

We prepare to discipline and create an environment where our rules and discipline reign supreme. We know that this structure creates an air of respect and further ensures the safety of our campers.

But we need to remember how we actually deliver this environment and safe place for children… Through our staff. They need to know more than our rules.


Summer camp is a hard business! We work these people continuously for eight to ten weeks, 24 hours a day for usually at least five days straight.

In a given week they get a full 24 hours off and maybe a night, all the time, while expecting them to give 100 percent of themselves to children and those around them. So? We did it. Yes. We did. How did you feel?

If your experience of being "in the trenches" was like mine, then I assume there were times when you felt the following emotions: Tired, frustrated, emotionally drained, under-appreciated, touchy, needing space, and, at times, a strong desire to go without human contact!

How do we continue to encourage staff to keep at it? We know that at the end of this difficult job you learn a great deal about what makes you who you are, and who you may want to be as a person. But that is an ending lesson.

Everyone should remember how difficult the job is, and not just from the "I did it" perspective. Reward and recognize staff, and encourage them to recognize each other.

It is easy to forget where the staff may be coming from. Simple thank-you notes and good-job comments can help elevate growing tension and rising frustration with the job. This allows the counselor to continue delivering a great program to the kids.

Also, a very strong and powerful tool is to seek out counselors to just "talk". Not discipline, but talk.

"How are you? Need anything? Is there anything I can do to help?"

Simple words, but when delivered by the camp director to an individual staff member they are magical! That staff member will remember when the director just came to see how they were doing.

That the camp director or program director took the time to search them out and wanted to know how they felt and if there was anything that could be done to make their summer better makes a big difference.

It's a Celebration…

Make sure you plan for a "big" end-of-season celebration for your team. They deserve it. Nothing can be more damaging to the great feeling staff has at the end of the season than to simply receive the instructions: "Please have your things moved out and your cabin cleaned by Sunday noon. Thanks for a great summer." We need to and we have to do better than this.

Plan a banquet. Try, no matter how difficult, to get off-site. They know the site. Budget a year in advance. If you can't get the dinner off-site then plan some sort of activity for them off-site, like a river trip, laser tag or an outdoor theater show.

When you plan the dinner try and have some sort of presentation, be it slide, video, Power Point or photo albums. Have visual reminders of what a great job they did and remind them through pictures of the fun they had.

Try and make the dinner fancy (camp standard fancy!). Allow them to dress up in a way that the summer did not allow! Encourage some sort of gift exchange between the counselors, and make sure everyone gets a gift.

And lastly, to round out the evening, give a speech of praise and thanks. Make sure that all staff gets a copy of the staff roster and contact numbers. Make it like a yearbook and let them pass it around.

If you're working on staff retention, remember one thing… Thank them, thank them, and thank them during the journey and at the end of the journey.

Most directors know that this is a learned skill. Unfortunately, we don't always have the best teachers. In a business that works you so hard, sometimes the thank-you notes are few and far between.

Work hard not to let the lack of thank-you's you may have endured to taint your vision of how your team should be rewarded. They need your guidance, they need your structure, but they also need your kindness and appreciation.

Recognition Suggestions

Here are some suggestions of some simple ways to recognize staff:

1. Rewards for suggestions to improve camp. Have a drawing from a box and give passes to movies or restaurants.

2. Have a "shout out" time at all staff meetings. Allow people to thank each other publicly.

3. Create a symbolic achievement award for each week. A program flag given to the best counselor at the end of each week, for example.

4. Have a continual staff vote for outstanding workers, with a reward at the end of the week.

5. Warm fuzzy board. A place where compliments are posted for all staff.

6. Praise Newsletter. List and handout all thank-you notes and warm fuzzy comments to staff at the end of each week.

7. Write a hand written thank-you note to each member of the staff.

8. Place a symbol on a counselor's cabin for doing a great job, and stars on the door as a reward for a great job.

9. Share positive parent evaluations with staff.

10. Simply try and tell people, "Nice job."

Good luck!

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

Bryan BuchkoComment