Secrets of the YBees
By Dan Chiles
As the sun burned into the orange hardwoods last Labor Day, the other volunteers and I sat on the Camp Wakonda Trading Post steps under a new shade roof admiring the new stone retaining wall, climbing platform, and security fence, as well as the freshly painted cabins, the host of new Leopold benches, and the stumps of old, dead trees.
With yellow hats bent against the glare, we examined the work of another four-day weekend of the fanatical camp volunteers known as YBees. For 28 years, we have shown up at our beloved Camp Wakonda to celebrate Labor Day by laboring.
The projects revolve around the availability of skilled craftspeople. We’re keen on carpentry projects, but as the labor pool has grown, projects are included for the new talents that arrive each year, such as for rock projects, remodeling, painting, plumbing, electrical, road building, and tree-trimming.
And, of course, we also build feasts to put Vikings to shame. The second-largest budget item—after materials—is food. We spare no expense to slow-cook the best BBQ in southern Missouri. The fall harvest from dozens of backyard gardens fills the old camp kitchen like a Hillbilly Whole Foods.
YMCA Camp Wakonda, near Halltown, is a small resident camp serving southwest Missouri. It has suffered recessions, social turmoil, and the revolving doors of management over 60 years. Around here, people say the YBees are the glue that holds the camp together. I’m too modest to say for sure.
Just like your camp, Wakonda needs capital improvements, and for decades the YBees were the major source. Projects are easy to find: a camp tour will take an observer by a giant climbing tower, a four-platform treehouse, two-car garage, Trading Post, GaGa pit, ShowerHaus, Nature Center, creek bridges, solar heating systems, painted cabins, new roofs, bike trails, a Ranger Camp, and dozens of Leopold benches springing up through the rocks like mushrooms.
YBees were organized by former camp-rats Mark McNay and me in 1987. I met “SmackNay” at camp 40 years ago, and as you probably suspect … we never really left.
In the last few years, we formed a new camp-management board, and the fundraising and new projects that have come about from this committee have all benefited from a close relationship with YBees zealots.
The YBees Abide: Secrets Of The Organization
Camp Business readers will be pleased to see the tightly guarded secrets of the YBees in print for the first time:
Labor Day is the prime weekend, but we offer to help whenever the camp needs us.
The YBees are loosely organized, but not “clubby.” To survive, we are open to new ideas along with the ebb and flow of volunteers, including new people each year.
The group is broadly multi-generational: Some younger Ybees have volunteered most of their lives, and now they bring their children. Older volunteers tell stories of the camp’s opening in 1953.
We meet with camp officials for months before the event. Steve Maynard, camp director, gives us a wish list, and we draw up concepts for most projects with SketchUp to help people visualize the work ahead. First, we find the key job managers for each project and then order materials. We have to be flexible because of weather, donor generosity, and the availability of the most skilled craftsmen and their willingness to lead crews.
The gender mix is a surprising 50/50. Better cabins with air conditioning would help with overnight stays, and we’re working on that.
The huge BBQ rig shows up on the Friday morning of Labor Day weekend with Chef Brian Sothern. Every visitor is greeted with a billowy, fragrant fog. That night, we climb to the top of the YBees tower and ponder the flow of clouds, stars, and satellites. Getting people to camp on Friday makes the Saturday start-up much easier.
We cook giant breakfasts Saturday, Sunday, and Monday mornings. Lunches are leftovers from the previous night’s feast. Every meal is a pot-luck.
YBees source our own tools, fasteners, materials, and food. Typically, camp pays for larger invoices, which we reimburse. Over the years, we have built key relationships with suppliers of lumber, plumbing, electrical, heavy equipment, and fasteners. They give us great discounts and donations.
Senior YMCA camp staff members are present for most of the weekend.
News is slow over the holiday weekend, so we can always get TV stations/newspapers to share our work with the public.
Seeking volunteers for the Ybees can be a tough sales job. Not everyone wants to spend a long weekend working in the heat among the bugs and sleeping in hard bunks in cabins with no air conditioning. Most people want to play at the lake, the ocean, or the mountains during their annual family time off. But not everyone has a mountain retreat. So volunteers are part of a group that loves the new pool, the great food, and the camaraderie. They want their kids to learn building skills and to see the value of giving. They want to creek-wade, gawk at the moon, and hike on the trails.
We enlist parents to help shepherd kids around camp while we work. The local YMCA provides lifeguards for the pool, and we usually enjoy the company of staff members who worked during the summer season.
The largest projects can attract well over 100 volunteers over four days, although we feel more comfortable with 50 to 60 people. We could increase attendance with a stronger social-media campaign, but we are results-driven, so that means people need to show up to work.
And that is the hardest job—maintaining the balance of having fun but coming to work. If the scales are tipped one way or another a little too far, our little experiment is over. Because we have adapted, the YBees abide.
The funny bee logo on our yellow hats is inspired by the Navy Seabees. YBees hats are treasured by those who wear them. Most people have a work version that is sweaty and another for socializing.
I’m the website builder, and there are a lot of great pictures along with a history and showcase of projects. We’ve never considered YBees chapters at other camps, but if you are interested, let’s talk.
“I have had the opportunity to work with a few different camps across the country and have seen many different groups of dedicated volunteers. The YBees at Camp Wakonda stand out among all of these. Their leadership is unmatched, they coordinate with the camp director to determine the projects based on Wakonda’s needs, they order and pay for the materials, they organize the manpower and tools for the projects, and they provide and prepare the food. When I heard how engaged they were with the process, I was skeptical. Last year I was able to witness and participate with this team of former campers, staff, families, and new recruits and was amazed that they handle each of these aspects for some significant projects, including new building construction, landscaping, and major building renovations. I am convinced that without the continued efforts of this philanthropic group, YMCA Camp Wakonda would be no more than a fond memory.”
--Steve Maynard, Camp Director, Camp Wakonda