Tree House

By Shellie Santay Visinski

How do you as the director know you run a safe, enriching summer camp program? That all of your staff "get it" and that the goals and philosophies set are being achieved? The answer is that to ensure that these objectives are being achieved; you need to start at the top.


During the winter season, as the director you met/recruited, and made promises to parents and campers, purchased the "best" safety equipment, researched the latest of extreme sports, hired talented, experienced staff, and planned for the unknown… Now that the season is in full swing, you turn to your trusted head counselor and hand it all over, so everything is perfect... or is it?

As the camp director, you need to make sure that everything is in order and functioning as planned, each day, every day, from the moment the staff arrives, until the last one leaves.

Directors need to get out there and be visible to the campers, and more importantly the staff. The reason is that it is the staff that needs to see, by example. They need to hear your words and understand your ideas, directly. It is through this that they will understand the impact of the role they play, not only for the children but also for the life of the camp.

Tree Fort
Does camp have a life? I was once asked to view my camp as an object, either animate or inanimate. At the time I didn't completely understand the reason for the exercise, but have since come to appreciate the idea and continue to utilize the concept as a way to demonstrate member roles at camp. The model I use helps to show how everyone and everything is connected.

The choice I made was Camp as a Tree.

Imagine, if you will, camp as a living, breathing tree. A tree needs good soil, just as camp needs a good location, facility and site layout. It needs sun and rain to grow, as do our summers, sun for outside play and rainy days to rest and connect.

Camp has roots, in its histories, traditions and alumni. It has a trunk, which supports all else that occurs, as the camp director does at camp.

The camp tree has main branches, which represent the main goals and philosophies. These branches lead to secondary branches, representing the staff -- those who receive these goals and carry them forward through their counselor roles and activity leadership.

Activities grow from counselors in the form of leaves. Birdhouses, represented as cabins, give us shelter, the apples represent our food source and all combine to create an environment where campers (birds) find safety, security and recreation, life.

Of course, we cannot forget the parents swinging from the bottom branch, some hanging on, hoping that they've made the right decision for their child, and others enjoying the moment.

Camp is like a tree, and by imagining it as such, it allows us to see where each of us belong and relate to the other. This message is extremely important as it relates to your staff, for it is the staff that turns your words, efforts and ideas to reality for our children.

The Source
Directors may be able to rely completely on their head counselors, and supervisor staff, some of which have been with them for years. They may be able to recite camp policies, goals and philosophies better than the director. In fact, many may have written them at one point.

Regardless, when it comes to messages the staff must hear it from you, the camp director. Why? It has been my experience that staff members feel more connected to a place, when the original messages are delivered via the camp director.

Direct interaction allows staff the opportunity to discuss issues, ask questions and make suggestions. It conveys a feeling that the director is interested in them not only for the role they play at camp but as people who s/he cares about and values.

These opportunities empower, motivate and excite staff into becoming a part of the tapestry of your camp program. With or without saying it, these actions say thank you, and provide staff members with the confidence to continue throughout the season

So what is your plan?

Plan to keep your staff motivated…
Michael Brandwein at the 2004 ACA conference in San Francisco shared with us the idea to come up with an acronym to help relay goals. He suggests we create a cheer to get the staff up off their feet and keep enthusiasm high throughout the summer. I found this suggestion made planning orientation extremely helpful, and a lot of fun to write this season.

Deliver messages directly…
Who's the head honcho? This individual needs to deliver messages directly to the staff in addition to those delivered by the supervisory staff. Be purposeful and welcoming and communicate to the staff throughout the summer.

We all have good, talented people whom we trust working at our sides who are dedicated to the camp program, yet it is the director who should host the staff meeting. If you want to know what's going on in your camp, then be there to ask the people who are spending 24/7 in it.

Empower the staff to join in…
Listen to ideas and create an environment that allows members the mental and emotional security to do the same. This enables staff to feel as if their work and opinions make a difference.

With this, they will more easily carry out your goals and feel empowered to share in your efforts. Make staff meetings fun; at each meeting establish a theme, have games with prizes, bring a snack, do whatever it takes to create a festive and playful environment. This not only keeps staff motivated and creates a secure environment, but it breaks down the negative and allows for better communication.

Take this time to ask the staff to evaluate the campers, give them a form to check off and write down their insight. Staff members who are asked specific questions about children take interest and feel appreciated by being asked.

Stay connected throughout the summer…
Walk around each day, it gets you out of the office and exercising. It also allows you to be seen, to talk and play with your camp members.

Create an employee questionnaire to determine if the environment intended for the staff is accomplishing their individual needs. By asking, you will be showing you care about them as people. You'll be able to monitor their level of commitment and enthusiasm, which impacts the campers, and get ideas of staff needs for recruitment in the future.

Follow-up with your staff and campers…
At the end of a season, it is a good idea to have people complete surveys. These surveys could be either written or verbal and should be answered by the staff, campers and even the parents.

Read up on how to create a survey or consider hiring a professional because this information can be extremely informative, if you ask the right questions. Try not to take any negative responses you might receive as a personal attack, merely a difference in perspective. Surveys allow you to gather information and improve.

Survey samples can be found at Scroll down and click on Forms to view them.

It's not too late. If the season has already begun, start now. Every improvement you make during the season will leave a lasting impression as the season concludes.

I always get a kick when someone asks, "So, what do you do for a living?" Ultimately, the next question that follows is, "and then what do you do the rest of the year?"

A director of a camp, any camp, has a full time job. It doesn't stop in the winter and it shouldn't be handed over in the summer. Directors who get out there are the directors who run successful programs. If you want to insure that you have a safe, fun and enriching program that meets set expectations, start at the top.

Shellie Santay Visinski is the director of Pocono Ridge in South Sterling, Pa.