Memory Makers

By Jeff Merhige

What is the magic of camp? What makes a camp different from another camp? So many camp directors approach this question by saying … traditions. True, traditions are created and repeated; they give history and credibility to our program, but when I ask campers, parents and alumni about their memories of camp, 90 percent of the time they tell me a story about an interaction with a staff member. Some memory of a special moment that stuck with them their whole life: a talk, a moment, a game, a special event. The difference between camps and the difference in creating that magic all come down to the staff.


The Importance Of Staff
I call staff members the memory makers, and how we train them to create these moments and encourage them to do things out of the ordinary will directly affect the results of your program and camper experience.

We spend a huge amount of time telling our counselors the rules, policies and procedures. We should. But are we balancing their safety training and rule-following with energizing them to go above and beyond with involving campers and creating that special feeling that camp gave so many of us. I can tell a great training week, after the fact, based on the counselor performance evaluations and “incident” reports. If the training was able to convey how to create the magic we need, it will show in all areas of camp performance. That safe, fun, educational and magical summer is based on that week we spend bringing them together and teaching them our expectations.

This is the easiest part of staff training, the teaching of all the rules, policies and procedures. I call this the easiest part of planning training because this is the set-in-stone type of information and counselor basics: first aid, CPR, homesickness, bullying, blood-borne pathogens, discipline procedures, crisis management, child safety, emergency drills, lost camper plans, etc.

How fun is your staff training? How many times have you completed a summer as a staff person and realized you never did the activities that you facilitated for the children? Did staff training provide the feeling of what it is like to be a participant in the program? Was it safe, fun, educational and magical? These are the key phrases we use to sell our camp to parents and campers.

How can staff provide this experience if we do not provide it to the staff? The result is staff that inadvertently creates its own style of leadership based on the members’ memories of their favorite counselor or leadership role model. Sometimes this is great. Sometimes it results in a meeting with the director, where the question is asked, “What were you thinking?”

We want our staff to be the best it can be based on staying within the guidelines of safe, fun, educational, and magical. We choose great people based on interviews and background checks. We choose them for their personalities and stories they tell. We make sure we continue that, encouraging those sparks we recognized in the interviews, into their work as counselors. Our 18-year-old counselors are still learning who they are.

They are not professional teachers, psychiatrists, psychologists, physical education teachers or customer service experts. They are great young adults who already have something to share with the younger generation. We need to encourage our belief in them to do this well. Staff training needs to recognize they will make mistakes, but we are trying to minimize the mistakes that could be dangerous or detrimental.

Making The Magic
It is important, in my opinion, to make the process of hiring and training a magical experience. Some of the best staff preparation has the following in common:

1. The hiring process sets up expectations and policies from the first interview.

a. Prospective counselors are given the camp’s policies and procedures. This will be the first of four times they will see this document, be asked to read it, and sign it.
b. A commitment-to-excellence agreement is read and signed. This document will also be read and signed three times before the summer begins.

2. Contact is maintained with incoming staff in a fun and energizing way.
a. A welcome letter and a CD of camp songs are sent.
b. Fellow staff member information is shared for counselor-to-counselor contacts before staff training, which reduces the anxiety of the first day.
c. Countdown e-mails that also include the latest camp news are sent.
d. Opportunities to come to camp for weekends are provided, which give new staff a familiarity with the camp and its grounds.

3. First day of staff training lives up to the build-up/hype and brings the counselors a magical, detail-oriented experience.
a. Themes are brought into focus on the first day. They should be tied into training and create a fun, competitive spirit among the staff.
b. The theme and the role-playing continue throughout the week.
c. At week’s end the theme is tied to the training and intention of creating counselors for campers.

4. Fun staff activities are balanced with educational expectations.
a. The staff members compete against each other in groups. Groups have photo tours of camp and show them during the staff dinner.
b. The staff members play the camper games until they know them and understand them.
c. The staff wakes before dawn and hikes to a point to watch the sun rise while making hot chocolate over a fire. A memory-making moment.

5. Counselor input and creativity are encouraged from the beginning through the end of training and hold true for the summer.
a. Counselors present ideas that are incorporated into the program.
b. Counselors are encouraged to take ownership and to participate in cabin games, songs, cheers and schedule changes.

6. Outside the schedule, flexibility is encouraged and a skill worked on.
a. Schedules are handed out at the beginning of staff training.
b. Activities around and within the schedule are demonstrated.

7. The highest level of “Kids-First” mentality is placed on the staff.
a. Counselors are continually reminded that the first question ever to be asked from a supervisor will be, “Where was the effect on the kids’ experience in your thinking and processing?”
b. Counselors are told that mistakes will happen, but they must have the kids in the forefront of their thinking.

Staff training is a stressful time for camp directors. We attempt to fill the week with every possible training angle we can. Keep in mind that summer camp is an active, moving-around entity. Keep that idea anchored in your staff training so as not to create a weeklong lecture series. Also, do not go to the extreme of turning the week into a work project for setting up camp, delivered under the guise of team building.

They must learn. They must be motivated. They must feel safe enough to share who they are. Only then will they be the best counselors your children have ever had.

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