Get ‘Em On The Same Page

By Daniella Garran

Cultivating cooperative, caring and compassionate staff members can be a daunting task for even the most seasoned camp director. While candidates may have exemplary backgrounds, solid leadership experience and superior activity-related skills, training them to coalesce and promote the camp’s values can be a challenge.


At Cape Cod Sea Camps, a comprehensive orientation for staff members is held each summer. It is a combination of certification schools in which staff members are trained in CPR and first aid, activity clinics during which staff members become familiar with the equipment they will be using and, most importantly, counseling courses. These sessions are designed to help staff members--whether they are veterans or new to camp--hone their counseling skills, and learn of the directors’ expectations in terms of working with campers.

Bridging The Gap
It is difficult to maintain the attention of returning staff (especially those members who attended camp and think they know virtually all there is to know), and to capture the attention of new staff members who may be overwhelmed by their surroundings and questioning what they’ve gotten themselves into. Meetings with these two groups are held separately on the first day of orientation. To the veterans, the message is to set the proper tone, and to help new members find their way around the grounds as well as to answer their questions. For the new staff, directors help the members feel welcome, and answer questions that include everything from “Where do we eat?” to “When do we get paid?”

Perhaps the greatest challenge of orientation is communicating an extraordinary amount of information to the members in a short amount of time. To some degree, it is possible to speak about situations--like homesickness--theoretically, but it is almost impossible to provide a script that will work with every camper; it is one thing to read about helping homesick campers, but it is an entirely different matter when you’re dealing with an inconsolable 10-year-old at three o’clock in the morning during a thunderstorm.

Engaging Games And Role-Playing
To help deal with different situations, counselors participate in a number of role-playing activities. In 2009, a game and reality-show theme kept staff members engaged, giving them some experience handling difficult situations. A version of The Amazing Race was a wonderful way for veterans to show the new staff around the facility while completing a series of tasks. For example, working in small groups, they had to console homesick campers (aptly portrayed by the drama department head and staff members), effectively greet parents (depicted by other veteran department heads) on opening day, and triage other potential problems, such as a camper’s incorrect cabin placement. Groups could not receive their next clue until the department heads were satisfied with their problem-solving skills. Not only was this an effective way to model what is expected of staff members, but it also served as a great icebreaker. The session concluded by debriefing what worked and what didn’t in each situation; staff members left the session feeling more confident in their abilities. Meanwhile, in a separate mission, Family Feud pitted each group against the other on their knowledge of camp policies, history and daily life. Prizes (e.g., camp water bottles and T-shirts) were awarded to the team with the highest scores.

Literal Translations
In 2010, a literary theme was used for staff orientation. The first session opened with a mad-lib activity encouraging counselors to prepare something similar for their cabins as an icebreaker on opening day. Each staff group was given a children’s story to “campify.” To show counselors how significant their influence can be, the directors depicted “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” After reading the story aloud, the staff created wonderful “campified” versions of “Ira Sleeps Over,” “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” “Madeline,” “Corduroy” and other favorites.

Divide And Conquer
One of the most effective strategies is to divide the staff members into two groups based on the age of the campers with whom they will be working in the counseling course. The “Lower Camp” staff members receive training geared towards campers ages 7 to 12. The focus is on how to work through homesickness, health and wellness issues such as bedwetting and ADD and age-appropriate issues like fostering independence. The “Upper Camp” staff members focus on the needs of 13- to 17-year-old campers. Older campers may be more independent, but they need counselors just as much as the younger ones do, but in different ways. Older campers face issues such as eating disorders and sexual identity, and staff members are trained to recognize signs of potentially troubling or risky behavior. Staff members are encouraged to ask tough questions of directors as well as of the nursing staff (another critical role in staff orientation).

Team Cohesion
Evenings are a great time to solidify the bonds among staff members. Early in the week, the focus is on accommodating a large number of participants in such activities as kickball, volleyball or softball. This gives staff members a chance to unwind and get to know each other a little better. As the week progresses, members are given a chance to try alternatives such as tennis, archery and riflery, activities that they might not have the opportunity to try or teach over the summer. If time permits, we have, in the past, also offered an all-staff sail on Cape Cod Bay. This organized recreation is a wonderful way to help staff members become acquainted, and to model what is expected of them when they arrange evening activities for campers.

For The Campers
The most important message conveyed during orientation is that the campers are the reason the staff is in training. Their safety--physical and emotional--must always come first. It is critical to impress upon staff members that they are responsible for other people’s children. The most effective way to do this is to have colleagues whose children attend camp speak to staff members about their role. Some of the themes that have been addressed include:

• How camp provides a wonderful environment for different types of kids (e.g., “the jock” and “the artsy kid”)

• The importance of safety in activity areas, and giving campers undivided attention

• The very positive impact that a great counselor can have on a camper and the potentially negative impact th at a bad counselor can have

• The amazing life-long gifts that camp offers.

In the post-orientation survey, staff members regularly comment on the effectiveness of this portion of the program. Hearing from their co-workers somehow makes it more “real.”

Creating a dedicated, hard-working staff that communicates with one another and understands the demands of its role as well as the expectations of the administration is well worth the effort. It is the key to having a successful summer.

Daniella Garran is the assistant director at Cape Cod Sea Camps in Brewster, Mass. She can be reached via e-mail at