So Many Specialties
By Andrea Massey
Pali Adventures in Running Springs, Calif., might be called a specialty camp, but it is also unique. While a few of the camp’s flashier specialties have made headlines (such as Hollywood Stunt Camp and Secret Agent Camp), there are actually 21 different specialty programs. The camp doesn’t alternate between specialty programs—each one runs during every week of camp. The programs are progressive, with activities building upon one another. Each specialty culminates with an event, like a performance, film debut, or party.
There are a number of benefits to running multiple specialties:
Limitless possibilities. Campers can stay all summer for years, try a different specialty each week of every summer, and still not have exhausted all the options.
Campers are more likely to stay extra weeks to experience other specialties. There is always something new to try, and campers never get bored.
Camp attractiveness to a wider audience. There is literally something for everyone. Most kids who are considering camp will be intrigued by one if not many of the specialties. This expands the reach as a camp.
The specialties differ from the typical specialty camp because they are more accessible to all skill levels. The aim is not a boot-camp style of in-depth study like one would find at a prestigious dance or sports camp. Instead, the goal is to make new areas of interest available to every camper. So, if a camper is curious about dance, thinks he or she would love acting on stage, has always wanted to try making a movie, or just wants to try something totally new, that can be done without feeling the pressure of needing to be good at the activity already. There is no competition or need to compare oneself with more- or less-talented peers. The programs can be individually tailored to campers’ ability levels.
No Boredom Or Burnout
Another difference between Pali’s specialties and a typical specialty camp is the duration of focused program time and the variety of the overall experience. While kids are normally limited to choosing one specialty, that program only lasts for the first half of a day. In the afternoon, the entire camp is open, and campers choose their own activities to fill three elective periods. This gives kids the chance to explore other fun activities, as well as whet their appetite to try different specialties in the future. Kids don’t experience burnout in a specialty area because it’s only 3 hours long each day, and campers emerge from the activity with expanded horizons. As a result, campers are not forced to participate in activities they don’t enjoy. They choose activities that make them feel successful, adding to the boost in self-confidence that camps are all justifiably proud of instilling in participants.
To integrate the camp, collaboration or friendly competition is fostered between specialties throughout the week. Movie Makeup campers do the makeup on kids from Acting Camp or Stunt Camp, who then act or perform stunts in movies for Film Camp. DJ campers curate music at the camp-wide dance. Rockstar campers put on a live concert for the entire camp. Broadcast campers interview campers from other specialties and produce a daily news show that is watched during dinner. Girl Power, Secret Agent, and Extreme Action strategize ways to surprise each other with a “raid” of water balloons and shaving cream. In this way, all campers get a sense of what the others are doing—hopefully even inspiring them to try something new the next year.
In the evening, the whole camp comes together. This is how the magic of a camp experience is preserved. Classic night activities like campfires and skits, plus a few invented events, have the kids laughing, bonding, and creating memories to be treasured. Cabin time is also sacred, and these groups sit together at meals and team up for some of the evening activities. However, since campers are not participating in each daily activity as a cabin group, there is more flexibility for kids to have friends outside of their cabins. Campers will often choose electives with new friends. Overall, the setup gives kids a greater sense of freedom while remaining safe and supervised.
Challenges And Solutions
So how does the camp do it? Running 21 programs simultaneously every week of the summer is an undertaking not without challenges.
Staffing. Not only do the counselors have to be amazing, energetic human beings capable of pulling off the major feat of surviving a summer while being “on” 24/7, but they ALSO need to be skilled in one of the specialty areas, for efficiency’s sake.
Solution: Hiring is begun very early for the following summer, sometimes as early as November of the prior year. Raises are offered to returning counselors who are great assets. Also, higher camp rates are charged to support the more skilled and numerous staff.
Counselor Burnout. The same counselors who run the specialty programs in the morning often have to run electives in the afternoon and participate in evening activities. As a result, they can get pretty wiped out!
Solution: There is a rotating system of free evenings, with off-site housing available for counselors to recharge. Three counselors are assigned to each cabin, so one can always be free, with the exception of the crucial first and last nights. Weekends are rotated, with enough counselors remaining on-site to run activities for stayover campers, while the rest of the counselors can take off for a day or so.
Purchasing. Each specialty requires its own set of materials and equipment. Some require maintenance from year to year, while others need to be purchased new each summer.
Solution: Campers are encouraged to sign up early for the camp to have better number projections. The director and assistant directors make purchases based on these projections and specialty capacities. Tabs are kept on supplies throughout the summer in case more need to be added. Some purchases are delayed as close to summer as possible for the most accurate projections.
Scheduling. With so many activities going on at once, and the campers sometimes switching specialties, keeping track of who is where is essential.
Solution: The camp has created its own unique database, as well as an iPhone app that the kids use to choose their electives each morning. The app is linked to the database, allowing staff to know where every kid is each day, as well as automatically controlling capacities for certain activities. The camp can monitor the system and re-allocate resources to add more availability of certain activities, based on camper demand. Overall technology and automated systems are a huge time-saver and cost-reducer. Manual tasks that required more admin time are now automatic.
Programming. With so many different programs to develop lesson plans for, with constantly fluctuating numbers of campers, depending on the week, and the inevitable need to adjust when things don’t go as planned, how can a camp director manage it all?
Solution: Trust staff members and program leaders. The first year a specialty is introduced, the director and assistant will do initial brainstorming, planning, and purchasing. But once a specialty director has been chosen, it becomes essential to depend on and trust that person to manage the day-to-day challenges in the field.
Camper Expectations. A camp atmosphere should be a happy one, so what if a camper starts a specialty, only to realize it really isn’t fun or of value?
Solution: Extend the opportunity to change specialties. Our parents indicate in their paperwork whether or not they are okay with a specialty change if the camper requests it. The options are “yes,” “no,” and “call me first.”
Quality Management. Again, with so many specialties, it is difficult for the camp director to be present for many of them. How does one know if the quality is slipping in some of the specialties?
Solution: Conduct great surveys and collect constant feedback from campers every week. Don’t use a generic survey; rather, customize it to cover all of the bases of a specific program. Don’t wait until the end of camp to check in with campers. It’s important to get lots of feedback after the first week so there is plenty of opportunity to make changes. This survey is conducted on the penultimate evening of camp and the responses are read that night in order to address any glaring issues with individual campers before they leave.
Andrea Massey is the Community Manager for Pali Adventures in Running Springs, Calif. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Student to Instructor Ratio: better than 3:1
Location: Running Springs, Calif.
Cost to Attend Camp: $1,945 per week
Specialty Camps: 21