Incremental Improvement, Part 2
The same kind of positive expectations and word-of-mouth buzz outlined in Part 1 (see Camp Business, March/April) works for program activities and other facilities as well. Here's a partial list of the yearly improvement projects implemented at Camp Jewell...
New view: Visual memories are some of the strongest, but many of our camps don't have any "trademark views" that really burn into their campers memories.
Jewell was like that, with so many trees you couldn't even get an overall view of the lake unless you were actually on the beach. At check-in parents would ask, "Do you have a lake here?" So my first winter we cleared a view from the dining hall to the lake. It was a new breathtaking scene, made more exciting by the sledding we'd do on this newly opened hill in the winter.
Now dirt poor but log rich, we had the trees cut into heavy log benches for seating at the top of this new view, in the chapel, and the next project, the council ring. (We traded half the wood to the sawmill in return for their services.)
Council ring: A campfire program is a highlight of not only summer camp, but most school groups and weekend groups too. But if the guests are uncomfortable and can't see, it can be miserable.
So we bulldozed our old area into a bowl shape and brought in extra dirt to give it a nice rise from front to back. Using volunteers we built a stage and installed benches. We built a raised campfire area out of stones off to one side so the benches could be closer to the stage and the fire wouldn't get in the way of the activities.
Finally, we created a huge routed sign with the camp name and hung it over the stage. Almost every guest takes at least one picture here, and we wanted our name on every one of them!
Mt. Wood: In 1981 I built what I believe was the very first free-standing tower for climbing. Up until that walls were built for rappelling in a few places copied after the Army, and Project Adventure was promoting climbing walls in school gyms.
Our tower at Tecumseh was unique, too, in that it was an interesting and attractive element in and of itself. It had a hipped cedar shake roof and looked like a western fort tower.
Kids couldn't wait to try and climb it, because we placed it right out in the open where it acted as a magnet for kids all over camp. Activity does that; it draws inactive kids in.
But only if they can see it, wander over, and get involved slowly by first watching. So building a tower at Jewell was a high priority, and doing it at the top of a hill (to make it seem tall, even if it wasn't), and highly visible (to invite kids to watch and join in, and to create great visual memories), made it work on so many levels.
Covered bridge: People like to hike, but they need destinations to get them out, and a satisfying place to have "reached" before returning.
If you can see an intriguing destination from afar, like a mountain top, a waterfall, or a bridge, it makes a magnet that's hard to resist.
As a volunteer project we built an authentic covered bridge that could be seen across the lake from many places in camp. Once you get there you find a self-discovery learning display on the purposes, history and engineering of covered bridges, and you're invited to hike back in time to an old mill site down the stream.
Rope swing: Camp Tecumseh built a tri-pod tower to support a rope swing into their lake for what I call the "Mountain Dew" experience. It's at the same time retro (your grandparents did it) and extreme (ya-hoo!).
At Jewell we used new utility poles anchored to concrete footings poured when the lake was lowered to create a structure that looks vaguely Native American. The insurance company loves it for its high control and low entry (compared to diving boards).
Mini farm (petting zoo): Kids love animals; it's another magnet. The real benefit here is that there's so much to learn once you've attracted kids and parents to the animals, and with the proper interactive, low-tech displays, they can learn even when there's not a staff person in sight.
Chapel: We'd always had a chapel, but for years it had only been used four times a summer on "middle Sundays". It had received the attention commensurate with four-times-a-year use.
I'd grown up with daily camp chapel services, but knew in order to change the culture of this camp we'd need to show how important and meaningful it could be. It had to have a great view and comfortable seats so kids and staff would want to come early instead of straggling in late.
We needed a stage to make it exciting to be asked to be a part of a thought-for-the-day. And it needed to teach spiritual lessons whenever someone happened upon it.
As in almost every other project at Jewell, volunteers working side-by-side with top staff built the stage, the "Spirt, Mind & Body" icon, and the 36 concrete-based park benches.
We chose the park bench for its comfort (ahhhh… a back to lean against!) and its weight (nearly impossible for vandals to move them around). And the inspiration comes not just from the setting, but also the dedication plaques placed around the chapel that focus on inspirational verses and poems that cause visitors to pause and reflect.
Mini-golf: We'd always been good at providing good experiences on sunny days, but cold, wet, muddy days often left the guests disappointed.
The miniature golf course is designed to be set up in an unused recreation pavilion on short notice. The nine holes are each built out of two sections that hook together with removable-pin door hinges. Each piece can easily be carried by two people, and even fit in the back of a minivan for transportation to family night activities.
Giant slide: Sledding is very popular in our area, but unpredictable. Wouldn't it be able if kids could have the same fun year-round?
I'd seen what we wanted at an elementary school once: a standard children's tube-slide like you'd find at a fast-food restaurant, but it was straight (so you could see no-one is still in it) and L-O-N-G. Eighty feet in fact, going from the school to its athletic field below. Perfect! Not inexpensive, but more affordable by using volunteer labor, it's been a non-stop attraction, doing more to tire kids out for a good night sleep (running up the hill between each speedy trip down) than any other activity.
Maybe even more appreciative than the kids, are the parents who get to sit in the gazebo at the top and sip coffee, making new friends while they hear their kids screaming, "Watch this, Dad!"
Bouldering Room: The climbing tower has been the single most popular and memorable activity for 15 years now, but the requirement for trained staff to supervise climbing limits the amount of time any child can participate.
Our "Boulder Basin" rock gym is basically a 24' x 24' interior playground. Handholds don't get any higher than seven feet off the ground, so with appropriate padding (we first used wood chips, then shredded tires because of cost, but there are padded floor tiles that are even better), even spotters are not necessary and it's considered playground equipment not "high adventure" by insurance companies.
Just as great for after-school childcare as Y-Guides, young kids as well as teens, staff and adults. Just be sure to put in benches, too, so dads can sit and watch (and talk), and kids can rest and talk with their friends until they are ready to try it again.
The New is for the Old
Every year something new... Not for the new campers, because they'd be perfectly happy getting the experience their friends had told them about in order to get them to come to camp.
In fact, we didn't even change the brochure, except for the prices, for eight years straight. Nope, the new stuff was all about return rate, and creating anticipation that even if we didn't get everything right, we were always trying -- always listening to what was on their guest comment cards and camper-parent evaluations, and always looking for the most bang for the buck. Because it's easier to keep a customer than go find a new one, and it's easier being a staff member for happy guests than disappointed guests.
And it's just plain fun to surprise people.
Gary Forster recently retired from a full career in organized camping. He still speaks at conferences and volunteers. Reach him at email@example.com.