Solely Responsible

By Silvana Clark

Ask me how to keep 100 campers happy on a rainy afternoon, and I’ll rattle off a list of activities. Do you need directions on how to tie-dye T-shirts? No problem. I can even tell you how to do it with unsweetened Kool-Aid. Call on me if you need summer staff training. Yes, when it comes to working with camps, I am totally in my element.


But right now, I’m out of my comfort zone. For the last 18 months, I have been a “Sole Ambassador” for the shoe charity Soles4Souls. This means my life revolves around the shoe industry. Oops! My life revolves around the “footwear” industry. (See how I’m learning all the buzz words?) Don’t tell anyone I work with, but right now I’m wearing my daughter’s hand-me-down shoes she was going to take to Goodwill. This morning, I rode my bike wearing a pair of sandals I bought at a garage sale for $1. Obviously I have no interest in designer shoes or even new shoes. Since my job involves distributing shoes to people in need, I’m comfortable at homeless shelters and group homes for abused children. So while people around me are gushing about the newest Naot sandal, Jambu Adventure Designs or Sanita clogs, I’m content wearing whatever shoe comes my way … preferably at a low cost.

Yet, as I explore this new immersion in the footwear industry, I see how some of its ideas transfer to the camp business. Recently a keynote speaker at a conference presented three points to help retailers find success. These can also be applied to camps.

Tip #1
For footwear--Create an inviting place to shop.
For camps--Create an inviting place to have fun.

What can you do to make camp an inviting place? One camp posted signs modeled after the old Burma Shave signs along the driveway. As families drove into camp, kids could read periodic signs (with bad poetry) that had something like:

You are almost there!
Breathe the fresh air!
Don’t worry about the bear!
He only bothers people with polka-dot hair!


Welcome to camp!
Where you get kisses and hugs!
It’s just too bad,
They are from snakes and bugs!

Do the cabins have an inviting atmosphere? Are there “welcome” notes from the counselor on each camper’s bunk? How about balloons or signs with each camper’s name on the front door? One camp had a huge white board at the camp entrance. Each week, campers were asked to put their “autograph” on the board to mark their time.

When I was a counselor at Yosemite Sierra Camp in the 1970s (when cell phones and e-mails from parents were non-existent), we were given a short information card on each camper. With this system, we knew the dog’s name was Puddles and their sister was at camp two years ago. Campers felt welcome because we could initiate a conversation based on their background information.

Tip #2
For footwear--Take time to talk about each shoe.
For camps--Take time to talk about what is happening at camp.

The staff members are familiar with meal times, camp songs and the rules of Color Wars. Many campers are not. One young camper, after hearing she needed to take a swim test, told her counselor, “I’m not a good speller. Will you take off points for bad spelling on the swim test?” Younger campers especially need to be told (and have a demonstration) about certain events. Tell a group of first graders they’ll be in a talent show, and most won’t have any idea what that means. Take those campers to see the stage area. Describe how other campers will applaud and cheer for them. Let them know that having a few butterflies before performing is OK.

Talking about bedwetting can relieve many fears. Counselors can calmly explain what to do if an accident occurs. Just as a shoe salesperson describes features in a shoe, you need to describe what a “swim buddy” is, how to do kitchen patrol, and what to do during “siesta” time.

Tip #3
For footwear--Measure both feet.
For camps--Measure a camper’s interests and abilities.

It’s easy to assume every camper is thrilled to jump off the rope swing into the lake, or to take part in the cabin cheer. While it’s not possible to provide all campers with a totally individualized schedule, take into account interests and abilities. One summer I had day camps in eight parks throughout the city. On Fridays, all of the camps gathered at one location for special events. At the third week, one of my best counselors said, “Silvana, I know you’ve gone to a lot of work to plan the mud bowl and Jell-O fight this Friday. My campers and I were talking about it, and none of them want to come. We’d like to use Friday to finish making a wall hanging that we’re delivering to the nursing home next to the park.” Naturally I thought everyone loved to get dirty and slimy with mud and Jell-O. In this case, I had parents calling me, delighted their children were attending a day camp where the counselor was attuned to the kids’ desire to take part in “less messy” activities.

And, of course, the most outgoing camper is going to steal the show during skit night, but how about having a round of applause for the camper who helped gather all the props? One counselor, trying to show that everyone was important to make the skit a success, held a dress rehearsal complete with wacky costumes and an assortment of props and sound effects provided by the behind-the-scenes campers. After a run-through, she said, “I want you to see what an important part Jessica, Haley and Amanda do with costumes and props. We’re going to do the skit again in regular clothes and without the props. There won’t be any sound effects either.” The skit fell flat, and the rest of the campers gained an appreciation for the girls who weren’t on stage, but played a major role.

By the way, if your camp serves children who can use new shoes, give me a call. I might be able to work out something where my husband and I pull up to your camp in the big, blue Soles4Souls RV and give free shoes to your campers. What better way to combine the two industries!

Silvana Clark has over 20 years experience helping thousands of children create arts and crafts projects. She presents keynotes and workshops on a variety of recreation-related subjects. She can be reached at (615) 662-7432 or via e-mail at