Going it Alone

By David Ridings

In January 2013, I moved from Tennessee to rural Nebraska to become the new director of Kamp Kaleo, a small Christian summer-camp facility in a town of around 1,200 people. I left behind my wife (who would join me in a couple of months after she finished selling our house and wrapping up her job of eight years). I spent my first weekend here helping some long-term camp volunteers paint and clean the director’s on-site residence. After that project was done, the volunteers left and I was on my own. With a nice blanket of snow and my temporary residence set up in the staff housing quarters, the realization finally took hold: I was a solo camp director.

While I feel this is my dream job, and the autonomy certainly has its perks, going it alone definitely has had its challenges. I’ve found that most of my challenges fall into three basic areas:

  • Solitude
  • Sole responsibility
  • Time management.

The first challenge I noticed that still remains today is solitude. During the off-season, there are no co-workers. There’s no one to meet with and no one to share ideas with. It’s basically just me and my never-ending to-do list. Because I live on-site, it’s not out of the ordinary for me to not leave the camp property for two or three days. It gets fairly quiet on the plains of Nebraska in the winter, believe me! Most of my volunteers live about three hours away, so no one is stopping in to say hello or to invite me to lunch. If this is your situation, there are things that can be done to combat the solitude. First, get out in the community and be known as the “camp person.” Within a year, I found myself on three different community boards of directors, the president of Rotary, and the youth minister at my church. The camp had the additional challenge of being known as the “church camp east of town.” One of my main directives when I was brought on was to boost the facility-rental revenue in the fall and spring. Being in the community gives me a chance to share the camp story with more people. It’s definitely nice to have people ask how things are going at the camp, and it gives me a chance to share what the camp has to offer.

I also suggest staying in contact with your summer staff, both personally and professionally. Care about what’s going in in their lives when they don’t work directly for you. Also, include them in decisions made during the off-season that are related to the summer. It makes them feel appreciated and helps with staff retention.

Everything Falls On You
There are many things that all camps have to do or things will fall apart. I have to do them by myself. There is no office staff to take care of camp registrations or a full-time landscaping crew to make sure every weed is pulled and the property is pristine for the board of director’s retreat in November. How about those large camps that have weekly teambuilding meetings? That’s not us, baby! I do have a part-time maintenance person, but he can’t do everything. When repair people arrive, I try to learn a little about the issue. If some minor problem occurs, I can fix it myself and save the facility money.

How about that misconception that the only work is done in the summer? When people ask me what I do during the “off-season,” I tell them there is a summer camp. When one is a solo camp director, there is no downtime in September through May.

Going it alone also means dealing with a lot of volunteer entrenchment. These people have their own “piece” of camp. It can be some tradition, procedure, song, or object they really care about. Understand this and tread lightly in making changes and improvements (especially if you are new). Some people are very protective of their little piece of camp, whether it’s a donated item or a piece of artwork they made when they were campers. In my first year, an issue arose concerning a donated couch. The donor was very pleased that the couch went to good use in one of the buildings. During a work weekend, one of the board members decided the couch was ugly and told me to get rid of it. For three months my mind went back and forth: Throw it away, don’t throw it away, because the donor will be offended. I purposely did nothing and prayed the situation would work out. I was seriously tempted to smash it and say a camper did it, to get myself off the hook. Eventually, someone hauled it away when I wasn’t around (the best outcome for me).

Time Management
In my first year as a solo camp director, one of the main goals was to figure out how much time I was spending on certain tasks and to reduce it. My predecessor used paper registrations that were mailed out, received, sorted, organized, and confirmed by another letter. No way was I going to be able to do that along with my other responsibilities. An efficient online registration system was immediately implemented. Kamp Kaleo is small by comparison, but I could not imagine continuing to register campers with paper applications.

When no one around to be accountable to, it is often tempting to let things go and procrastinate. I’ve realized this always comes back to bite me. It does nothing but create more stress and pressure as things pile up. Every director has a list of items the camp needs but are not urgent. Be very accountable for your time, and get things done! Use apps and technology to stay on track. I use Google calendar for my schedule, Evernote (the best ever) for notes, lists, documents, and receipts, and Any.do for my running to-do list. I love these apps because they can be accessed and synchronized from any phone or computer. I can add items, whether I’m eating lunch with campers, tie-dying a T-shirt, or being at home in the evenings. Find what works best for you to keep track of everything, and stick to your system.

I love my job, and often tell colleagues it would take something very special to make me go to another camp. Being a solo camp director is not without its drawbacks when I compare them to those at camps with a large staff, but when I can do something I’m passionate about, I’ll take my small camp every time. Where else can floating down a river on an inner tube be considered a day at the office?

David Ridings is the Camp Administrator for Kamp Kaleo, a 250-acre camp in the Sandhills area of Nebraska. Reach him at (308) 346-5083 or kampkaleo@gmail.com.