Tradition & Foresight
Pierce Camp Birchmont
Sessions: Full Session ($7,800), First Session ($4,800), Second Session ($4,300)
On the shores of Lake Wentworth, near the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire, the Pierce family has operated Pierce Camp Birchmont for three generations.
As a former athletic director, founder Forrester Pierce, Sr. began the program as a day camp in 1918 focusing on sports and fun.
Now as a resident camp, director Greg Pierce continues to cultivate those athletic roots. "We are primarily a sports camp with an emphasis on our tennis program and our waterfront activities," says Pierce, who has directed the camp for 20 years.
Each camper who attends the resident summer program receives daily Red Cross instructional swimming, and at least an hour of tennis lessons.
With a USTA tennis pro on site, the children's skills are developed and the top players participate in an additional 20-hour course of high-level tennis instructions.
Age level tournaments are also conducted as part of the child's athletic growth, and Camp Birchmont hosts inter-camp competitions with a dozen other area camps in up to 100 different events.
Although the program accents tennis, it's clear that they are still running a traditional camp program, not just a tennis camp. Basketball, baseball, soccer, rink hockey, archery, golf, mountain biking, and riflery are some of the other sports offered.
And with a Class A, six-mile long, two-mile wide private lake adjacent to the camp, as well as beachfront on the property, this uncrowded, clean water is used for skiing, tubing, sailing, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, windsurfing and wakeboarding.
Pierce adds, "Many camps with lakes are having the growing problem of safety as lakes become busier and busier, but we are fortunate to have a big, beautiful, quiet lake."
W.A.G. is another athletic development program that includes weight training, gymnastics, or wrestling.
And for the children not so athletically inclined, there is a program entitled Notches. Within Notches, any child can learn arts, crafts, pottery, beading, tye-dying, nature study and nature walking.
Through the Notches woodworking program, children can build things to use while at camp, such as their own mailboxes, jewelry boxes and picture frames.
"We are a traditional camp; we even have horseback riding," points out Pierce. "Since we have a big bulk of time, we try to do a lot, even within a sports camp environment. We have a talent show and a camp play every year."
Recently added to the ever-increasing recreation options, was a bungee trampoline, with four trampolines propelling kids, attached to harnesses, jumping and flipping, up to 30 feet in the air.
No doubt there are fun options galore on this 300-acre camp. However, five times throughout summer kids are taken away from the facilities.
These road trips are part of the exciting and innovative trip program -- a highlight for the children to leave their summer "home" and have a new and unique experience.
The younger kids may go on a day-trip to hike a nearby flume, or visit a water park, while the older campers take three-day white water rafting trips, and visits to Boston, Quebec and Montreal. "I've added this element into the program," says Pierce. "But it's a graduated process, from little trips for the little kids, and bigger kids get bigger, more adventuresome trips."
Pierce Camp Birchmont is fortunate that one of the other family businesses happens to be a bus company, which gives the camp options for mobile programming. Consequently, if there happens to be too many rainy days, the campers are easily transported to nearby roller rinks or bowling alleys via the fleet of buses at the camp's disposal.
Pierce notes that his market is predominately middle to upper class suburban children, and families pay $7,800 per child for the entire eight-week summer session.
"These, like most children in our culture, have increased pressure to perform," says Pierce. "In their everyday life, they are running from ballet to soccer, to homework, and camp has replaced the traditional neighborhood."
The program, facilities, and atmosphere of camp are a type of throwback to what conventional neighborhoods used to provide. Safety, structure, relationships, recreation, and a place to unwind is what Camp Birchmont offers that is opposite to what most kids experience every day.
The leadership comprehends the time restraints and bombardment of entertainment in the world, and seeks to slow things down and turn back time for their campers.
Pierce emphasizes, "Since the kids don't have access to computers, cell phones, or email, camp is very different from their daily lives, and it should be different, rather than sitting in front of the TV. You may be playing checkers or knock-hockey, which is much more interactive, but we don't want them to go into culture shock so we have special events just for the fun of it."
Thus, these fun events are planned to enhance the program throughout the summer by giving kids rare community building and interactive experiences.
These activities are non-gender based that bring the boys and girls together. For instance, the camp put on a hoedown, complete with hayride, mechanical bull, and a country and western band. Three dances are also held each year. One is the "day-glow" dance with live DJs, a black-lit room, fluorescent face paints, and glowing hair gel. Others may be a pirate day, a treasure hunt, or a drive-in movie experience showing E.T. on a 50-ft. screen.
Although most families send their children for the full summer, Pierce sees a growing market for the half summer sessions. "We live in a busy world. Today's parents both work and would like to have their kids for part of the summer and do something family oriented."
Although 60 percent of the clientele is from the New York and tri-state area, last summer, campers from 16 states and six countries benefited from the camp.
Pierce also gives credit to Bunk1.com for sculpting a distinctive "one-way mirror" for the camp. Pierce goes on, "We probably put 3,500 pictures online through Bunk1. The parents can look in and yet let the campers do what resident camping has been doing for over 100 years, which is letting them interact and start off on their own path of self-reliance and independence."
Since Pierce started uploading photos online, he has seen a reduction in anxious parents. Utilizing this system, parents can also email their children while they are at camp, and the staff will print the email and deliver it to the camper.
This co-ed camp serves approximately 400 boys and girls each summer for an eight-week session. With the ages ranging from 8 to 15 years old, and a return rate of 90 percent, the staff has the opportunity to see these children grow and develop throughout their formative years.
Approximately 140 staffers are hired for the summer, giving Pierce a 1 to 3 staff to camper ratio, thus remaining true to the value of low tech and high touch.
A potential staff member undergoes an intensive hiring process with an 8-day required training, thus resulting in low turnover. He admits that it is time consuming, but it is necessary to go through the full application procedure, with background checks, contacting references, and conversations with former employers.
Most of his staff has been with him over three years all the way up to 45 years.
There is no new construction planned, but with over 60 buildings on site, Pierce will be updating and renovating six pine-floor cabins this year. And with a third of the cabins having fireplaces, and ingredients to make smores on hand, there is plenty of space for indoor programming, rain or shine.
Pierce sees parent communication as a top priority, and he has taken several steps to increase effectiveness in this area.
For example, group leaders call each new parent before camp begins to inquire about the individual needs of the camper. This simple act of contact has increased confidence among parents who may be concerned about sending their child away for the entire summer.
Having an on-line presence is another very important way of communicating with the parents.
Updating all camp documentation is also important when dealing with parents. Revising the camper enrollment form to be more like a contract to avoid legal issues has been one step taken in the business of camping.
"Parents need to know everything up front, like payment schedules, camp policies, regulations, rules, medical care and the permission to use campers' images," says Pierce. "Where the older version was nothing more than personal information and who to contact in case of emergency, now the contract means more to help the camp protect themselves."
With a history of experience, generations of learning, and a dedication to excellence, the Pierce family nurtures their camping heritage into the future.
David Willingham , a.k.a. Willy Dee, is a freelance writer who lives in Kerrville, Texas. He has extensive experience as a youth camp director, ministry consultant, and area network coordinator.