Familiarity breeds contempt--or, at the least, apathy--when it comes to training returning camp staff members who are so intimately familiar with the rules, regulations, policies and procedures that they could literally rewrite the staff manual.
Hardly a unique problem, all camps face the issue of how to keep returning staff actively engaged in training and orientation programs. For example, at Camp Hamwi, a three-week residential camp for youth ages 5-17 with diabetes, sponsored by the Central Ohio Diabetes Association, approximately 85 percent of program staff each year have multiple years of camp service (in 2008, the average number of years of service was five). What’s more, many of those staff began as campers at Hamwi and later became counselors, so they have been with the camp for many years, even decades. As a result of this extended service, a common, recurring complaint on the camp evaluation forms was the monotony of orientation and pleas to make it more interesting, fun and informative for those returning each year.
Charged with the need to keep peace with staff while keeping pace with the mandates and necessities of camp preparation, CampHamwi’s Leadership Team, led by camp director and social services director Darlene Honigford, was formed. Comprised of former program and camp co-directors, the team has spent considerable time over the last several years implementing and assessing new models of orientation delivery specifically designed with returning staff in mind. This has resulted in higher rates of satisfaction and participation for these seasoned camp veterans.
Overall, we have developed five different approaches to presenting the material. Some of the information and approaches are better than others, and we work to mix and match strategies to highlight the material and keep staff engaged.
Tests Prior To Camp
Some of the material covered in camp orientation centers on the history of the camp and camp grounds, counseling suggestions and ideas, daily procedures and general camp rules. Instead of requiring veteran staff to sit through a rehashing of these topics, the director created a fill-in-the-blank and short-answer test focused on the necessary information. The current staff manual was included. Along with the required hiring paperwork, the test answers were turned in and graded prior to orientation, with the results stored in the staff member’s personnel file. Anyone not reaching an 80-percent proficiency level was required to redo the test until a satisfactory score was achieved. Requiring prerequisite work was a success in two ways--it limited the amount of time returning members had to sit through previously acquired information, and freed up blocks of time for more pertinent activities.
For years, the typical method of orientation was to gather all staff in one large group in the main lodge, where a single speaker would give seminar-type presentations for a set period of time. For variety in the present situation, camp leadership team members--including the camp, medical and program directors, along with senior staffers--work together on the first day to break the content into manageable, relevant, 60- or 90-minute segments. From there, the blocks of content are categorized by program, medical/dietary and general camp topics, and, using a blank orientation template, placed strategically to avoid the problem of content overload. (We wanted to avoid, for example, having too many programming sessions together, or inadvertently scheduling an entire morning with all medical sessions.)
These content areas are then assigned to the appropriate expert, who has designed a custom-tailored presentation of the material. The second step of this process requires that the entire staff be divided into thirds. Each presentation is given to one group at a time in a different location on camp grounds. At a pre-determined time, groups switch to attend the next content-area presentation. Not only does this break the large group into smaller groups, which facilitates staff relationships, but the built-in movement helps eliminate the boredom and apathy that comes from sitting too long.
Returning Staff Experts
The second day of orientation is dedicated to the actual daily program activities and how they will run when campers arrive. Prior to orientation, returning staff members with experience at a particular activity, such as archery, drama, water games, dance, cooperative games or fishing, were approached to present educational sessions to all staff. Giving seasoned staffers the title of “resident experts” and making them responsible for one segment of the training is peer-to-peer teaching at its best. Staff members are more receptive to the resident experts than attending another session and listening to camp directors. Additionally, reassigning these activities gives camp and program directors an opportunity to informally assess the interests and strengths of new staff members toward certain activities to assist in pairing counselors with activity duties later in the week.
Not all returning staff members have the comfort level or skill to put together a presentation for their peers, but many of them value the chance to help during orientation sessions. For this reason, we created and implemented opportunities for returning staff to assist program, medical or camp directors as facilitators during more lengthy and required presentations. Instead of being responsible for an entire session, facilitators work with the directors to do a portion of the presentation, such as getting members into groups or helping set up displays or interactive games. Serving as facilitators helps boost the leadership potential of more shy and hesitant staffers. It also increases their personal sense of importance and camp ownership, since they have an interest in getting involved but are not sure how they fit into the entire camp program.
Off-Site And Hands-On
Ask any teacher the best way to promote learning and engage student interest, and you’ll hear how important it is to incorporate hands-on, physical activities. While CampHamwi encompasses over 600 acres, a few of its most popular activities are away from the main campground. Rather than sit on folding aluminum chairs and talk about how to paddle a canoe, saddle a horse, or properly spot a camper on the high-ropes course, moving the training sessions to these locales makes more sense and is more effective at encouraging returning staff to be active and participate.
There are only so many icebreaker activities to do before counselors start to go through the motions of getting involved, but when they find themselves paired in a canoe with two new counselors, teamwork and a genuine bond are forged. An added benefit to partnering veteran staff with new hires in small groups is that with fewer people involved, the newer staff may feel less intimidated and more at ease asking important questions.
The goal of every counselor should center on providing each camper with a positive, exciting and fun-filled experience he or she will remember and look forward to the next year. By creating these same sentiments in your program staff from the time they are hired to the moment they return home, you will ensure their terrific camp experience flows to the campers. Taking the time to create positive, interactive and meaningful orientation presentations will make the difference to your staff and, ultimately, the entire camp experience.
Beth Morrow is a freelance writer, educator and a member of the Central Ohio Diabetes Association’s Youth Committee and Camp Leadership Teams. She has served as Senior Program Director for CampHamwi, a residential, age-based, week-long camp for diabetic youth for fifteen years. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org