Staff of the Year, 2003

The best of those who make camp tick year after year, as nominated by their peers, employers and employees.

Most camp directors agree that it's not a camp's philosophy that makes camp great. It's the counselors, administrators, directors and other support staff holding the camp's mission in unity and excellence that makes it great.

We received a number of nominations for 2003 Staff of the Year, and chose the following group who were honored for their hard work, and that special something that makes for a great camp staff person.

This year's winners represent a diverse slice of North American children's camps, from varying backgrounds and camp avocations. We've included the original nominating letter, which follows a short biography highlighting the winner's perspective and philosophy that helps make them great camp staff.

We invite you to nominate someone who makes your camp great for the Staff of the Year, 2004 Awards. Go to and click on Forms to fill out a nomination form on-line. We'll choose a group of winners after next summer and publish the results next November. Turn in your nominations by September 10, 2004.

If you have any questions, drop us a line at, call (830) 257-1012 or fax (830) 257 -1020.


John "Slim" Gillin
YMCA Camp Merrill M. Benson
"This is more exciting than having my letter published in Entertainment Weekly," laughs Slim Gillin.

Apparently, the magazine wrote a derogatory article about Wesley Crusher, prompting Slim to defend the young Starfleet ensign. Captain Picard would be most pleased… Engage!

It's Slim's wry sense of humor and truly camp-like outlook on life that helps make him one of the camp's most popular staff people.

When we spoke with Slim, he was back home teaching in Alaska at Hooper Bay, a Yup'ik Eskimo village. Originally from Waukesha, Wis., Slim began working at camps in 1977 at Phantom Lake Y Camp in Wisconsin until 1997, when he moved to Alaska to teach.

Once in Alaska, he met his wife, Mary Ellen. Slim says the kids in school thought Mary Ellen Gillin had a certain ring to it and worked feverishly to bring the two together.

With his summers free, Slim returned to summer camp work at YMCA Camp Benson, and as noted in the following nomination letter, made an immediate impact.

Slim says the secret to his success is "the ability not to be afraid to still be a kid… You certainly have to look at it as a serious job, but your perspective has to constantly be that it's fun for the kid, and relate to kids in that fun kind of camp way."

Everyone involved in camps knows all about that "fun kind of camp way" -- it's an outlook that translates to true enthusiasm and love for the kids.

"We need to respect them as individuals, and find out what it is they want from camp and try to help them focus on that goal. At school it's such a feeding frenzy, but at camp all that goes out the window, so we need to help them understand that it's a different environment and they can get as much out of it as they want, depending on what's put into it," says Slim. "It's also good to have a progression; something that they can't quite do this time around, but next year they have something to look forward to and work toward -- whether it's archery or the waterfront."

Another aspect of Slim's success is his attention to the kids after they leave camp and the resulting camper retention that helps foster.

"When the camp season ends, it doesn't mean that you vanish. I always send a birthday, Christmas or Holiday card, and at the end of the summer just a short note to say, 'Glad I met you this summer; hope you have a great school year,'" says Slim.

John "Slim" Gillin is an integral part of camp life here at YMCA Camp Benson. He is an assistant program director and one of those larger-than-life camp figures that no camper could possibly forget.

From the first meeting, campers know that Slim is a different kind of adult than they are used to. On opening day when campers first gather to go over camp rules, Slim makes the most of the little bit of down time by calling out the words to the Sponge Bob Square Pants theme song, which has every kid singing back to him by the end of the song. This is only the campers' first taste of Slim, and throughout the week he's everywhere.

He is the coordinator of the staff shows, and knows a hundred skits by heart. He's the activity leader who can step in at a moment's notice at any activity area in camp, and the storyteller who every camper hopes will come tell stories in their cabin at night.

Slim's influence extends beyond what the campers see. He works tirelessly behind the scenes with the teens in the Staff Development Program, teaching them how to be positive camp leaders.

His leadership style is personal. He takes time each day to talk with the teens about how things are going in their cabins, at their activities and makes gentle suggestions from his 20 years of camp experience that help them make good choices.

Staff members come to Slim when they are having difficulty with their cabins or individual campers, and activity leaders come to him for creative program suggestions.

Theme weeks, daily songs and announcements, all-camp games… all of these areas of camp life benefit from Slim's positive influence.

More than anything, it is Slim's influence on the individual campers that I respect most. He notices and becomes the instant buddy of the homesick camper, the unsure camper and the camper most in need of a friend. He makes time to listen.

He returns for Winter Camp, even though it cuts into his short Holiday visit to his family. Slim's actions remind the rest of us that the kids always come first. --Jenny "Fozzie" Rule

YMCA Camp Merrill M. Benson, Mount Carroll, Ill.


Katie Lynn and Laura Jo "Lou" Blair
S-LA Woodmen of the World Youth Camp Inc.

For Katie Lynn and Laura Jo "Lou" Blair, camp extended their family. Having no younger siblings, their charges at Camp Woodmen were quickly adopted for the summer.

"After you work a year or two, you get to know the kids really well, they recognize you when they come back, and they tell you about what's been going on at home," says Katie.

This familiarity helped Katie and Lou come up with creative ways to help the kids overcome their fears and homesickness at camp.

"Some of the kids are hours from home, so you have to deal with kids being scared at night, because it gets really dark and quiet at night," says Katie. "We would hold a cabin meeting every night and if anyone had a problem, they could say anything they wanted to and it would be handled that night. Then it wouldn't be on their minds the entire week and ruining camp for them."

Katie is a senior and Lou is a junior at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. Lou is studying design and Katie plans to go to culinary school and open her own restaurant some day.

Lou says that camps should strive to fully utilize the interests and talents of their counselors, particularly when planning all-camp activities like luaus and other special events.

Also, Lou emphasizes the importance of a unified staff so that camp is a healthy blend of maximizing each person's differences toward a common goal while not allowing differences to divide.

"It was hard for the 24 of us counselors to merge that first week," recalls Lou. "But that's where I learned to take someone who you might not get along with, get past that and learn to work with them."

I am nominating the Blair twins -- Kate and Laura "Lou" -- for this award because both of these young adults have been working with Camp Woodmen, under my leadership, since 1999.

During their tenure, both have worked with all aspects of the camp -- lifeguarding, cabin counselors, program directors, food stocking crew, skit coordinators, janitorial… you name it, they have never avoided trying it once.

Both Lou and Kate have the ability bring out the best in others, and each in their own unique way try to include everyone. They do not tolerate isolating others from the group. Both have tried to include other members of the staff, even when those staff members tried to be separate.

South Louisiana Camp Woodmen operates seven weeks out of the year. We handle 168 youth ranging in age from 8 to 15, with 30 staff members.

Both Lou and Kate have worked with all age groups and can be trusted in maintaining the camp, even when I'm not around.

I respectfully submit these two phenomenal young twins for Camp Business magazine's first annual Staff of the Year Award.
--Grethchen A. Varnell, Camp/Fraternal coordinator
S-LA Woodmen of the World Youth Camp Inc.
Lafayette, La.


Duane VanOrden
Howe Military School Summer Camp

Duane VanOrden, the director of Howe Military School Summer Camp in Howe, Ind., is a big believer in community involvement. This collaboration yields community-wide and individual camper benefits, and even helps retention.

One example of this is the mock disaster and blood drive the camp ran in conjunction with local emergency services and the community as a whole. This program brought the camp ACA's Eleanor P. Ells Award.

More importantly, it tied campers to community service, showing them what true citizenship is all about.

"The biggest thing is to go out into the community and ask, and find out what the needs are. Volunteerism is kind of dormant, and if we can instill that in the kids today more people will want to volunteer, which helps shape them for the future," says VanOrden. "Encourage them to go out and make them understand the meaning behind it. Our local Lion's Club has a road cleanup, and they need young guys to get involved and go out and do that. When you explain that it helps everybody, makes the road look nice, and helps the local community and the Lion's Club, they really respond to that because it makes them feel important and useful."

Howe Military School Summer Camp is a six-week summer offshoot of the military school. "It's a military camp, but it's not the only thing we do. The boys get their hair cuts and have drill, but it's laid back compared to what you'd expect at a military camp," explains VanOrden.

In addition to morning academics, the camp includes traditional camp activities like canoeing and boating, nature studies, athletics, drama and ropes courses.

Mr. VanOrden took over the summer camp in 1996. The enrollment at camp was 68 campers. In 2000 the camp had 126 campers. The last two years the camp has had a waiting list, and more cabins are being built.

Mr. VanOrden also brought back the camp's summer pageant, which was a long-standing pageant discontinued in 1998 but returned thanks to Mr. VanOrden.

In 1998 the camp was honored with the Eleanor P. Ells ACA award thanks to the program created by Mr. VanOrden to have campers and local community members do a mock disaster and blood drive. Over 500 people participated.

Mr. VanOrden also created a new program of hiring high-school and college students with older counselors as mentors to get them correctly involved in camp life. He also has been extremely successful with the ACA standards inspections.

Mr. VanOrden is extremely well-liked by staff, parents and campers. He receives much respect and is truly loved at Howe Military School Summer Camp.

--Howe Summer Camp Staff
Howe Military School Summer Camp, Howe, Ind.


Brendan Garrett
Lu Dog Basketball Camp, California Lutheran University

Brendan Garrett is the complete player, combining outstanding basketball skills with a keen sense of coaching. Brendan completed his undergraduate degree in social science in May at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, and is working on his Masters in education.

In addition to his studies, Brendan has been a standout player for California Lutheran's basketball team and its summer camp, both led by Coach Rich Rider.

"Coach Rider does such a great job. He would take us through everything, including examples of problems and how to handle them. By the end of the week, we would know exactly where we wanted the kids to be as far as self-esteem, physical conditioning and skills," Brendan says. "One of the most important things that players of any age lack is self esteem, and if you can bump that up it will bump up their performance on and off the court. There's no such thing as too much praise at the basketball camp. And, you need to show them that you care about what's going on in their lives."

Brendan adds that he's learned the two most important Rs of teaching at camp -- relationship and repetition.

"Repetition is the best way to teach skills, and at the same time you have to find a fun way to keep their attention," Brendan explains. "I've learned to relate to the players at any age level by finding something interesting that you can comment on, like their shoes or the cartoons they like."

Brendan has been a camp counselor for Lu Dog Basketball Camp for the past five years and continues to be the most requested counselor by our campers.

Year in and year out, he has had a strong, positive impact on our campers and focuses his teaching in a positive high self-esteem atmosphere.

“B" -- as he is known by the campers -- employs a wide range of group dynamics and continually gains the trust and respect of both the kids and their parents.

Having come from a disadvantaged background, and once a ward of the court himself, Brendan continues to be a strong role model and positive influence. He has always managed to touch the lives of the people around him and will continue to do so as he graduates this year and prepares for a career in the teaching profession.

--Rich Rider, director
Lu Dog Basketball Camp, Thousand Oaks, Calif.


Bob Merrill
Lutherwood Camp and Retreat Center

Though Bob Merrill had never worked as a professional in the camp business, his previous professional and academic experience, along with a spiritual epiphany, led to the perfect job for both him and his camp.

Merrill has a degree in forestry from the University of Idaho, with a professional background in retail and team-level management. When Merrill's daughters began going to camp at Lutherwood, Merrill says, "I was just drawn up here. It's a neat place to be, and I never thought I'd get to be up here all the time and live on-site. It's the happiest I've ever been because I get to use every skill I ever learned."

The most important thing Merrill says he's been able to bring to the camp is an emphasis on staff development. For Merrill, it's about laying out the responsibilities and freeing them to do their job.

Merrill likens improving camp operations to preparing a manufacturing company for ISO certification. In this case, Merrill says the camp has set a goal for ACA accreditation by 2005.

"At one of the places I worked we went through ISO 9000 certification where you had to design systems for everything, write down what you do, and do what you say," says Merrill. "It all comes down to people. When we've had any conflict between staff members, we sat down for two or three hours and got everyone to open up, put it back together, heal and then work together. You have to spend time with people, and you can't ignore the problems."

Now the camp has an annual staff retreat that's less about winding down and more about winding up for the next season.

"We're not done, and we'll never be done, because you're always adapting. At our retreats we tear apart the last summer and use that to help put together the next summer. We go week by week through the summer. What that has done is make us really look at what we're doing with a critical eye and recording it so we don't forget it and improve the next summer," says Merrill. "Now we plan every single day of the summer all the way down to the nitty gritty to what vehicles will be used where, for example. It's planning every little detail to the nth degree. My goal is that when people come to the camp they just have a good experience -- they don't care or know why."

Bob Merrill started here in August of 2001 as the operations manager. In the following months, Bob -- who had no camp or outdoor ministry experience -- had a steep learning curve and came on strong.

Bob was quickly thrust into the top leadership position when our executive director left. Since then, he has turned into the inspirational leader for our staff team.

He has accomplished more in one year than you might expect after ten years -- new roofs on cabins, a new log cabin structure, remodeled staff housing and more.

Besides facilities, Bob has made connections with people in the community, building relationships with constituents of our camp, organizing his day to be extremely efficient with all that is on his plate, all the while taking time to ask the staff, "How are you really doing?"

He is like a general who rallied his troops and pushed them to achieve more, and serve the mission of Lutherwood, which is to renew all in the Holy Spirit through adventure, service and prayer.
--Tyler Wagner
Lutherwood Camp and Retreat Center, Bellingham, Wash.