Interpreting “Green” To Retreat Guests

By Nancy Ferguson

Recently, I became a volunteer for the National Park Service (NPS). As part of my training, I was introduced to the concept of interpretation.

In NPS language, the task of interpreting is to introduce a visitor to the natural or historical resources at a park. The interpreter then acts as a conduit between those resources and what is valuable and meaningful to the visitor.

This concept can be helpful to camp professionals who are inviting guests to participate in “green” practices, and to become participants in “greening” when they return home.

An old adage may apply here: You can give person a fish and feed him for a day, or you can teach him to fish and feed him for a lifetime.

Conversely, you can show someone the recycling bin and save one or two soda cans, or you can inspire him or her to make a commitment to Earth care when he or she returns home and save an infinite number of cans, bottle, boxes, and plastic.

If your camp is like many these days, you are focused on ways to practice “greening.” Perhaps you recycle, have replaced light bulbs, and only use post-consumer waste paper in the office. The board may have adopted environmentally friendly policies, or even included a commitment to sustainability in the mission statement.

Now you are ready for the next step--sharing this commitment through interpretation with retreat guests, inviting them to participate, and inspiring them to continue the practice when they get home.

Here are five suggestions:

1. Become An Interpreter
The primary task of camp hosts is to welcome retreat guests and offer them hospitality. This includes making sure they know where they will sleep and eat, as well as where the activities will take place.

This is the time when guests learn the procedures for meals, how to reach the host with questions and needs, and general risk-management practices. This time should also include extending an invitation to participate in recycling and other “green” practices.

The goal of interpretation is to help guests make the connection between their experience, their values, and their choices. Through various activities, we help guests increase their enjoyment and sense of connection with the facility and their experience there.

The goal is for guests to care about what is at the camp or retreat center and perhaps to extend that care to the environment at home.

2. Help Guests Connect With Their Values And Experiences
As a host, I have frequently heard comments from guests about how beautiful, peaceful, and wonderful the camp is. You have probably heard similar comments.

These are expressions of amazement and wonder, of appreciation and gratitude. They are descriptions of something that goes beyond simply the temporal environment and resources to the spiritual and intangible values of what the guests experience.

Here are questions that can help them make that connection:

  • What is most wonderful to you?
  • How does it make you feel?
  • What memories does it bring to mind?
  • What does it make you want to do?

There are no correct answers to these questions. Their purpose is to help guests move beyond what they see, hear, smell, and touch to what they value. What they value they will also want to care for.

3. Provide Information About The Ecosystems
Think for a moment about the ecosystems--woods, ponds or streams, wetlands, and meadows--that exist on the property.

  • What plants and creatures live in each of these ecosystems?
  • How are those that live within each system related to each other and dependent on one another?
  • What would happen to those ecosystems if one of them was destroyed?
  • What threatens the health of these ecosystems from outside your property?

One aspect of the commitment to Earth care as camp professionals is to teach others about the natural world. This is a topic of great focus when developing programs for campers. However, it may not be emphasized for retreat guests.

Develop a way to teach guests about the many aspects of the facility’s ecosystems. Post photos and informative notes about the creatures and plants on the site. Create photo collections of creatures and wildflowers. Make available books about the ecosystems.

4. Give Guests Practical Means To Participate
Most people learn by doing rather than merely by hearing about something. Learning new skills and trying them out is one of the best attributes of camp.

When it comes to helping retreat guests to “go green,” giving them practical opportunities to participate in recycling, picking up trash, composting, and gardening will have more impact than hearing staff members talk about it. Once these skills are acquired, guests are more apt to change their behavior permanently.

Several easy practices to introduce are recycling, composting, and using less paper. Put recycling containers in the dining room and at other places around the site where guests eat and drink.

During the welcome orientation, mention the recycling bins, and tell guests about what you are able to recycle. Explain briefly what can be gained by recycling, and invite them to participate.

If you are able to separate trash and use portions of it for compost, explain the process to guests. Point out the trash containers for the compost, and show them a clear drawing or poster about what they can include.

Keep it simple, such as including leftover undressed salad, orange and banana skins, and raw vegetables. Tell them at each meal what can be sent to the compost.

5. Offer Resources They Can Take Home
Model recycling, composting, and reducing the use of paper while guests are at your site, and then equip them to continue those practices at home.

When guests arrive, provide them with a ceramic coffee cup or water bottle with the camp or center’s logo and contact information. Encourage them to use the cup or water bottle while at the retreat and invite them to take the mug or bottle home.

Note the contributions that carrying a coffee mug and refilling a water bottle can make. Post information about the number of trees cut down for paper products each year and the mass of plastic water bottles added to landfills.

Another product that will promote the facility and “green” practices is a cloth bag for shopping. Or provide plain bags and offer guests the opportunity to decorate them.

Interpreting and Equipping
As you engage in interpretation of the natural resources of the site, you are offering guests the opportunity to find meaning there. As you equip guests to be stewards of the environment, you are expressing your own commitment to Earth care.

Nancy Ferguson is an Outdoor Ministries consultant, specializing in the creation of program resources for faith-based camps. She is the author of several books, including "Training Staff to be Spiritual Leaders." She can be reached via e-mail at .