Staff Continuum

In 2006, 87 percent of YMCA Camp Ernst’s staff had once been campers themselves or were returning staff. According to the American Camping Association (ACA), the national average for return staff rate is only 40 to 50 percent.

How does Camp Ernst grow its own staff and keep members coming back? Easy! By taking the same progressive achievement program you probably already use for your campers and applying it to the staff.

Progressive Achievement Programs

“Camper, Adventurer, Mountaineer, Pioneer, Ernst Person, Ranger, Naturalist, Scout, Top Honor! Whoooo Hoooooooo!” This seemingly senseless group of words is chanted by hundreds of campers each year during the culminating ceremony for Camp Ernst’s camper progressive achievement program.

Campers from ages six to 15 work on a separate level of their “Honor Log.” The program ends by campers reaching the final level of “Top Honor” and being publicly recognized for their hard work. (The Honor Logs also spell out C.A.M.P. E.R.N.S.T.—pretty cool eh?).

Each log is more difficult to earn (increasing by age), and campers who achieve Top Honor are recognized for their achievement and seniority before the entire camp during the closing campfire. Every camper yells the levels of Honor Logs as the Top Honor recipients walk up steps (labeled for each level) and bang the honorary oil drum well hanging from a tree. Sound pretty weird? Well, it probably doesn’t sound too weird because you are all camp people, and most of you already employ an award program like this. These programs encourage campers to come back and be rewarded for their hard work and upstanding character.

Staff Continuum

In 2000, Jon Perry, YMCA Camp Ernst’s executive director, decided to take these principles and create a “Staff Continuum.” Each year staff members have a new job, new title and new responsibilities.

Ages 15 to 17

For example, when campers turn 15, they are eligible to volunteer for work on Camp Ernst’s crew. In this servant leadership program, crewmembers pay a minimum fee ($50) and work in the kitchens, clean the bathrooms, and help with maintenance. Believe it or not, this is one of our most popular programs. Last year we had more than 150 participants and had to turn away 30 more due to limited space. Crew serves as a great transition from campers (LITs) where camp is all about “you,” to staff where camp is all about “not you.”

After crew, our 16-year-olds are eligible to work on Camp Ernst’s E-Team. E-team counselors are activity counselors; they are not yet allowed in cabins, but they interact with the campers by facilitating activities. Both crew and E-team still allow for lots of hangout time and community. This is good for two different reasons:they bond and form strong, healthy friendships with like-minded teens. By not having them in the cabins with kids, we are not setting them up to do something stupid and end with a Monday morning call from a parent--probably about a 16-year-old teaching campers how to start a fire with bug spray while the Head Cabin Counselor was gone. The next level is a transition to counselor-hood. Both E-team and crew have their own special “leaders” who supervise their work and serve as pseudo-counselors.

The 17-year-olds are Junior Counselors and serve as role models to the E-team in good activity counseling. If they continue to succeed, they are placed in a cabin and given very minor roles and mostly observe and learn from the older counselors. The Junior Counselor checks in multiple times a week to see which new responsibility he or she has taken on, or what his or her goals are.

Ages 18 To 20

Our 18-year-olds are Assistant Cabin Counselors. Finally, all that training and waiting have paid off. These counselors are happy to be in a cabin and have been looking forward to this opportunity for the past three years. We find this helps them take their job more seriously than someone just thrown into the position. They are hungry and ready to impress. The staff members are in a cabin with full-time responsibilities. However, they are still responsible to their Head Cabin Counselors,

who are at least 19 years old and must have completed one year of college. We believe this is one of the most important jobs at camp. Besides being in charge of the cabin, Head Cabin Counselors must make sure all paperwork is submitted correctly, and that the cabin is clean. They also model good behavior for their assistants and support their color leaders.

Color Leaders are 20-year-olds and outstanding Head Cabin Counselors, who assist the Unit Leaders and Assistant Unit Leaders in the field and perform other duties. One of their most important roles is to model excellent counseling skills.

Ages 21 To 23

Assistant Unit Leaders are 21 and are in charge of the Color Leaders and Head and Assistant Cabin Counselors. Assistant Unit leaders are basically “unit leaders in training” and perform much the same role as Unit Leaders, but always defer to their partner and unit leader.

A Unit Leader is 22 and is in charge of a unit of campers, usually 10 cabins and 120 kids, 12 Head Cabin Counselors, 12 Assistant Cabin Counselors, two Color Leaders, and some Junior Counselors.

Unit Leaders are supervised by the Program Director, who has usually been a Unit Leader for several years and now serves as a counselor to the Unit Leaders and helps manage their interaction of units and the general outlook of camp, including running campfires, talking to parents, etc.

It All Adds Up To Success

As you can see, each year staff members gain a new title and new responsibilities and, incidentally, new status. The expectation of these upcoming changes gives our staff members something to look for in the off-season. To progress to the next step, clear guidelines are given to the younger staff, explaining exactly what they must achieve to become a Unit Leader.

A high staff return rate is great for your program because you know your staff very well (they have grown up in front of you), and you continue to influence great character values and reward your staff for doing a great job. (What better place to grow up than camp!)

We have used our staff return rate as a marketing strategy by explaining to parents that, though we do the ACA and YMCA required reference and background checks, 87 percent of staff have been campers here and we have known them for a long time.

Stuart MacKenzie is Program Coordinator at YMCA Camp Ernst in Burlington, Ky. He has been on Camp Ernst’s summer staff since 1999. He can be reached via e-mail at


System In Brief (As it looks in YMCA Camp Ernst’s Staff Manual)

YMCA Camp Ernst--Staff Responsibilities By Position

Crew: 15-year-olds

•Perform kitchen duties (cleaning, washing dishes, serving), bathroom duties (cleaning, stocking, maintaining), garbage maintenance, and groundskeeping.

•Participate fully in special Crew activities.

•Contribute positively as a member of the Crew Community.

E-Team: 16-year-olds

•Lead or assist in leading daily activities. Keep the Fire.

•Help maintain camp quality through assigned jobs.

•Contribute positively as a member of the E-Team Community.

Junior Counselor: 17-year-olds

•Lead or assist in daily activities.

•Support cabin counselors as assigned. Maintain cabin appearance.

•Develop counselor skills and certifications.

Assistant Cabin Counselor: 18-year-olds

•Along with Head Cabin Counselor, supervise cabin of campers at all times.

•Support Head Cabin Counselor.

•Be alert to and assist Head Cabin Counselor with camper/cabin issues.

Head Cabin Counselor: 19-year-olds

•Supervise cabin of campers at all times. Make connection with each camper.

•Maintain paperwork (sign in/out, postcards, awards, etc.).

•Be the first contact for camper and cabin issues (discipline, homesickness, etc.).

Color Leader: 20-year-olds

•Be responsible for staff excellence, morale, and integrity.

•Monitor activities, mail call, supplies, schedules, clean up, lost and found.

•Be the second contact for camper issues.

Assistant Unit Leader: 21year-olds

•Assist in planning and supervising unit day and evening programs.

•Monitor activities, supplies, schedules, clean up, lost and found.

•Be the second contact for camper issues.

Unit Leader: 22-year-olds

•Plan and supervise unit day and evening programs.

•Manage unit staff. Insure “ACA everyday.”

•Be the third contact for camper issues.

Unit Leader: 23-year-olds

•Plan and supervise unit day and evening programs.

•Manage unit staff. Insure “ACA everyday.”

•Be the third contact for camper issues.

Bryan BuchkoComment