Beyond Tradition


Camp Mataponi for Girls

Naples, Maine

Ages: 10-15

Price: $7,600, one seven-week session

Camp Mataponi is one of the last of its kind. And, it's truly one-of-a-kind. Located on the picturesque shores of Sebago Lake in Maine, Camp Mataponi runs one, seven-week session for girls each summer. The camp has been continuously operating since 1910, originally under the name Highland Nature Camp. The Mataponi moniker came about in the '30s.

Dan and Marcy Isdaner have been the owners and directors for the past 11 years. While holding fast to the camp's traditions, including the seven-week session, they have infused the best of the 21st Century to go along with the best of the early 20th Century.

The proof of this is in the numbers, as Marcy reports that the camp has been running at capacity for the past four summers, showing a jump in growth from about 60 campers in 1993 to its current capacity at 330 campers.

Summer Home

The secret, says Marcy, is in the creation of a family-like atmosphere, where relationships between everyone at camp are effectively fostered and nurtured.

Perhaps much of this has to do with the sheer length of the session, but a full-length session could have the opposite effect. Rather, Camp Mataponi maximizes the time with well thought out activities and programs.

For instance, each camper gets a camp sister. Typically, a younger camper is paired with an older one, which helps create a mentoring situation. When Mataponi puts on special events, the oldest girls lead the activities. This is another factor that helps with camper retention, as it gives something for the younger campers to strive toward.

"It's huge; it's fantastic," says Marcy. "Each week we have Olympics and dress-alike contests with your camp sister, and you sit with your camp sister at campfire."

Counselors are an important part of the Mataponi family, as their experience at camp can make or break the summer. Dan and Marcy travel all over the country seeking counselors, looking for girls who want the opportunity to be kids for a summer while being responsible role models.

"Make sure the staff has a great time and that they're qualified. We work really hard with our staff to let them know we're there for them. Throughout the summer we're always having contests and other activities to let them know they're appreciated," says Marcy. "I like to think that they look to us as their friends as well as their bosses. I really care that my staff is happy. If they're happy and it makes a difference, then the kids feel it."

Marcy regularly fields calls and e-mails from counselors in the off-season. She recently received a message from a group who got together in New York City for the weekend. They called to let Dan and Marcy know what they were doing, and that they were thinking of them.

Counselors are prepared with a week of training that focuses on the same foundations each year. But they try to present a fresh approach, including outside speakers, so that it's not old hat for returning counselors.

"We make sure the staff and the person coordinating the program is well prepared, and the itinerary is detailed to the minute. You can't wing it. Safety is given -- everyone has to have the right certifications and training," says Marcy. "My motto is that you're only as good as your last summer. You have to keep tweaking -- what can we do better? We have girls who have been coming back for five or six years and they're 12 and 13… How do we keep them excited about coming back?"

A big part of that answer at Camp Mataponi has been to update its programming. Specifically, the camp has emphasized outdoor adventure and provided more focus on athletics and unique recreation.

Vital Programming

The most popular area has been the ropes course. Camp Mataponi has a low course with about 15 elements and a high course that's about 40 feet high and also has about 15 elements.

The low ropes course is typically a bunk, team-building activity. The younger girls get to use the high ropes course for an hour three times a week; the older girls (12-14) have it scheduled for two hours three times a week. One facilitator works with the girls all seven weeks of camp.

The tripping program has also been expanded beyond the overnights the camp does on its island. Now there's a different trip for each age group. When they're 15, for instance, they can look forward to a three-day whitewater rafting trip. When they're 14, they climb Mount Washington.

"I got such resistance at first. They complained the whole way up, and laughed all the way down," Marcy recalls. "When we first bought the camp it didn't have a reputation for outdoor adventure and land sports, and it took time to build that up."

Camp Mataponi offers soccer, softball, basketball, volleyball, field hockey, La Crosse and water skiing, among a large range of sports. Wake boarding was the big hit this past summer on the lake.

About three years ago the camp built a large indoor recreation room, bringing in some outdoor sports indoors, like roller hockey, which includes an event called Girlie Death Hockey. The girls dress up and play amid strobe lights and music.

Marcy says the girls can be as competitive as they want. They can participate in intercamp games, where they travel to other camps for competition, like swimming, basketball, soccer, tennis and sailing.

Staying on top of what's popular, and keeping things exciting, is really about personal attention, Marcy says. "We take every situation and every camper for what it is and who they are. I go out and meet with every family that wants to send their camper so I can know the girls," Marcy explains. "We're very on top of the contact with the parents all throughout the year about what to anticipate and expect so they can be proactive with their girls to minimize any problems."

An important part of keeping up is minimizing time and paperwork. Mataponi employs a bevy of camp-specific time-saving tools, including camp search engines, database management and registration. The camp has recently moved registration and database management to CampMinder, which Marcy says helps free them in the off-season to work remotely from Florida and keep up with the camp office in Maine.

"We can be on the database at the same time in different areas, working on staff, registrations, and everything else. Whatever's going to make my life the easiest and concentrate on camp… I just want to get in there and just do what I need to do," Marcy says.

Camp Mataponi has an interactive DVD for campers and staff. The DVD includes a general video about the camp, video highlights on particular aspects of camp, and even a Q&A section.

"I think I have the best job in the world; I love it. I like to be the one out there meeting the people who come to camp. It's always fresh for me because I'm hiring the staff and meeting the parents," Marcy says. "I don't want it to be necessarily bigger and better. I want to take advantage of where we are in Maine."

Bryan BuchkoComment