There's a lot of talk in business about "creating ownership". In our case, that means giving our parents and campers a sense of ownership through their involvement and assistance with camp operations and planning.
Through a few simple practices a camp director can gain information which will help guide their program to greater success. This information from parents and campers can prevent a tunnel-vision approach to the development of the camp program that misses out on opportunities of growth and greater success.
During the summer consider preparing exit packets for parents to take home at check out. Include a list of questions to ask their child about their stay at camp, summer enrollment details for the rest of the summer (openings, new programs), next summer registration tips, a parent evaluation of the experience, a calendar of upcoming events and ask for participation in a camper/parent council program, which is a family involvement program into camp planning and future.
Exit packets allow for us to help parents communicate with their child about the experience they had at camp. We want to avoid the age old "How was it?" Campers tend to answer that with the traditional, "Good..." End of conversation.
By giving our parents questions that use camp lingo they have the opportunity to really get their camper to explain. What was the big game this week? What cheer did your cabin do at assembly? Did you play Raptor Tag? Parents want to know how the kids enjoyed the experience but they do not know the lingo that the camper has been submerged in for weeks.
Too often we as camp directors accept the general idea that people outside of camp just don't understand what we do. Instead of resolving ourselves and our client parents to this we should try and educate them so as to make them apart of their child's experience and make them knowledgeable about camp.
Our goal should be to make the camp experience as real as possible for our parents, to give parents questions, an evaluation that they can fill out with their camper, and dates where parents and adults are welcome to enjoy the facility. If you help parents to become apart of the experience that their child had, then they will also consider the camp as their camp and be more active in many ways to assist the camp.
As mentioned above, another idea is to create a parent/camper council. A group of parents and their campers meet twice a year to discuss camp planning, programs and ways to improve the camp experience for everyone.
There are actually two councils -- one for parents and one for campers. It is important to have the councils meet separately, but have activities planned for the families to do together.
It is an amazing amount of information for a camp director to discover directly from the parents and kids in a group discussion. Set the weekends up as parent-child weekends, appoint a parent and camper to be the honorary chair and run the meetings with a lot of open discussion on topics related to camp programming, facilities and the future. Share plans already in motion and get feedback and input.
A number of positives will come from this:
1. Parent involvement.
2. Direct camper and parent feedback,
3. It creates a volunteer recruitment program, taking parents to a dedicated position with the camp.
4. Open a new network of ambassadors to promote the camp.
5. A sense of ownership will be created for your parents and campers.
In your exit packets or a letter immediately following the close of camp, invite people to join the council. After receiving your first responses, send a commitment letter for them to sign. In the letter, state that being a member of the parent-camper council requires a commitment to two meetings in the next year.
Send an outline of the agenda and activities. Decide on the length of the meetings (usually a day or two-day event).
Send a preparation list for members before they show up on the weekend. Decide on if you need to charge or make it free.
Here at YMCA Camp Kern we have a minimal charge covering food if it is a two day event, and free for one day events. No matter if it's a one- or two-day event we always plan activities for them to experience. We try to reinforce that camp is fun no matter what time of year.
Information and commitment to camp is what we are looking for. Use this tool to better your program and increase your networking resources.
Involve your summer staff and have those who can attend to help with the weekend and to generate discussions. At some point in the meetings share your vision of the camp, goals and future plans being considered. The councils will serve as focus groups for your ideas and give you a better idea if you are on the right track with meeting client needs.
Take time this summer to make sure you have future information. Our goal is to create the best experience possible for our campers and guests. To keep with the times and to adjust to the changes of our world it is important to commit to continual information gathering, even as we play our games, sing our songs and light our camp fires! Good luck!
Jeff Merhige is the executive director of YMCA Camp Kern, Dayton YMCA, Dayton, Ohio.