Staffing Your Camp The Easy Way (Kind Of)

“Employees are a company's greatest asset - they're your competitive advantage. You want to attract and retain the best; provide them with encouragement, stimulus, and make them feel that they are an integral part of the company's mission.”

-- Anne Mulcahy, former CEO of Xerox

Staffing our summer camp used to be a fierce, fierce competition.

Tired of fighting for camp staff? Try growing your own. © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Leaf

We would battle with other local camps when we added our booth to the line at the local college fair. We would battle camps nationally when we posted our positions to the Internet. And, increasingly, we would battle our local schools – all of whom seem to offer more and more theatre, academic and sports camps each year.

Tired and bloody from the battle, we sat down and asked “What can be done about this?”

Is spending the day (or days) lined up in a dining hall with a bunch of other camps playing a virtual game of trick-or-treat with college students really the best way to attract and retain the best?

I didn’t think so – and neither did my staff.

So we took a different approach. We haven’t been to a camp fair or had to recruit counselors, kitchen workers, or leadership staff in years.

How? We grow our staff.

The Staff Development Model

We put massive emphasis into what we call the Staff Development Program (SDP) -- a four-year training program starting during a camper’s freshman year of high school and ending their senior year. After successful completion, graduates are guaranteed an interview for a staff position.

This is not a simple sign up and join thing.

Two annual weekend retreats are required along with a full week or more during the summer. The application process includes essay questions and evaluations.

To make this work, you need the right manager. We have the perfect person. Eight years as a camper, four as an SDP, and two as a counselor, our 2013 SDP Director, Tanner “T-bug” Thompson is the right guy for the job.

Thompson is in charge of making sure all 96 summer SDP spots are filled with the most amazing high school age campers we know. No small feat, but one he pulls off regularly.

Like all good solutions, this one came with some positive, unintended consequences – most notably it has become a great selling point to parents of prospective campers.

I can and do say to the mom who calls inquiring about our camp that, “Every counselor is interviewed, reference-checked, background-checked, both sexual offender and criminal offender, peer-reviewed, talked to, and ‘oh, by the way,’ we’ve been training them for four years.”

That means a ton to a parent.

So, as you approach summer, have you identified your future staff members? Are there 11- or 12-year-olds in your camp sessions you may lose next year due to a lack of a Staff Development Program? Are you tired of getting down to the wire and still needing staff?

Then perhaps a program similar to ours is just what you need. You can read more about ours at .

Good luck this season!

Cory Harrison has directed resident camp programs for more than 10 years with The Salvation Army and the YMCA. Currently, he is the Director of the YMCA Camp Benson in Northwest, IL. He is a life-long camper, an avid reader, and daily cereal eater. Reach him via Facebook: