No Fear

By Jeff Merhige

According to camp legend, a neighboring farmer who owned 100 acres abutting our property, hated our camp. Like all legends, it hadn’t always been that way. For the first sixty years, the farmer, his family and Camp Kern had gotten along smashingly well but, about 20 years ago, something happened (nobody could remember exactly what) and from that day forward, things were no longer, shall we say, neighborly.


The irony, of course, was that the camp’s strategic plan listed our greatest threat as the sale of that farmer’s land to a developer, potentially placing residential homes within 30 yards of our cabins. The biggest goal of that same strategic plan? Yep. You guessed it. Purchase of that property.

Mending Fences
In the ten years prior to my taking over as director, at least two CEOs attempted to mend the relationship. Each attempt ended the same – the family hung up on them. No fuss, no muss.

In 2002, as new director, I heard the story. On a whim, I decided to write a letter to this family introducing myself, acknowledging that we did not have the relationship with them we would like, apologizing for anything that might have happened in the past, and outlining my philosophy and plans for the future of the camp. I sent the letter out in an unmarked envelope (no Camp Kern logos) and… no response.

The next year, I mailed two letters, one in the winter and another after our summer season ended. I used both letters to bring them up to speed on what was happening at Kern, telling them what we were doing and why. Again, I mailed the letters and… no response.

In 2004, I kept up my attack and mailed one letter again, keeping them informed and up-to-date on what we were doing and why. I must confess, by this time, the letters were more therapeutic for me than practical. Again, a letter was mailed and… no response. The same thing happened to my masterpiece in 2005. Things weren’t looking good.

And then, in February 2006, I received a phone call from the son of the current landowner. To be honest, I thought he was calling to tell me to stop harassing his parents but, instead, told me his family had decided to sell the farm, and his parents insisted I be given a chance to purchase it.

One week later, we all met here at Camp Kern to discuss the details with our current CEO. During the meeting, the farmer’s wife told me she had saved every single one of my letters and that they were only here, discussing the sale of their land with us, because of them. Wow. That was a good feeling.

Even better, we closed on this property this past July – adding 100, much-needed acres to our camp.

Act On Your Dream
In telling and re-telling this story, I’ve learned this type of experience is not uncommon in the camping world. I’ve heard countless tales of gifts and wonderful things happening because someone had the courage to simply reach out and ask for help.

I’ve learned it’s important to reach out to children, teens, families and adults. I’ve learned that, as directors, we can’t be afraid or intimidated to ask everyone and anyone to help. I’ve learned it’s important to take the time to build relationships with those around us.

When directors ask me how they should approach someone they think can help , I tell them to call, write or email. It doesn’t matter. Treat them like you would a good friend and communicate however you normally, naturally communicate with people you like.

I know it’s easy to feel intimidated (I used to be this way myself) when approaching people we perceive as important (big business CEOs, actors, local personalities, etc.), but why? What we do is important. Hold your head up high when you let these people know you represent one of those special (and increasingly rare) places in society that teaches children kindness, character, values, independence and self-confidence – all the things they would want their children to learn.

So, don’t feel out of your league. Remember, it is our league that creates all these wonderful players and characters that populate the leagues of life – the lawyers, professional athletes, actors, doctors, school teachers, post-office workers, grocery-store clerks and so on.

I love the fact that, when I explain what I do, I still have people ask me, “That’s year-round?” But I also get mad, not at the person who asked the question, but at our own industry. Why have we not communicated fully what it is we do and what it takes to do it? Only through this will we attract future camping executives and people of desire and vision. Don’t be afraid to educate everyone on what we do and the service we provide in shaping the future leaders and influencers. How important it is to have places where people can come for safety, unconditional care, unconditional acceptance and fun...

Strong Action Leads To Unexpected Successes
Need another example? Well, earlier in my camping career, I read a fantastic book, The Disney Way: Harnessing the management secrets of Disney in your company, by Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson. The book was published in 1999 and spoke about using the philosophy of “Dream, Believe, Dare and Do” to shape your company’s vision, goals and, most importantly, culture. The book had a profound effect on me.

I read the book in hopes of shaping an effective management plan for my new job, executive director of Camp Kern.

On the spur of the moment, I did something I had never done before (or after as it turns out); I wrote the authors to thank them for the book and told them a little about my situation and goals. I included a list of questions and asked them, if they had the time to answer a few of them and include any notes they might have handy that they thought might help me in my new job.

To my utter amazement, the authors responded and, eventually, came to our offices to personally lead a retreat with our staff – teaching us to set dream goals and how to achieve them.

I directly attribute all our recent success to this book, the authors’ help and my team’s willingness to set ambitious dream goals and then go after them. From work culture and customer service to facility dreams, we are a different camp now than we were four years ago.

Here’s how that success breaks out in terms of raw numbers:

• We have increased retention of campers from 29 percent in 2001-2002 to 77 percent in 2005-2006

• Conferencing and group retention rates went from 34 percent in 2001-2002 to 94 percent in 2005-2006.

Our success has earned us a mention in the new Disney Way: Revised and Updated being published this fall, but more importantly, a little success has a way of leading to more success, bigger dream goals, bigger results.

So, don’t be afraid to dream the dream you want. Believe you can make it happen. Put forward the effort. Dare yourself to face your fear. And, make it happen.

We know better than anyone how fast a year goes by, so do it. Do it now.

Jeff Merhige is the Executive Director of YMCA Camp Widjiwagan in Nashville Tenn. Reach him at