A Wiffle Effect

By Eric Tucker

In fall 2006, after tabulating more than 1,500 camper evaluations, we discovered that Flagpole, a long-standing camp tradition, was described by the majority of campers as boring, hot, pointless and disruptive to the camp day. Wow! We had been using it since 1901.    

Flagpole was really simple--three times a day, everyone would meet in the sports field, form a half-circle around the American flag, sing songs, and make announcements. The morning Flagpole included raising the flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, while the evening concluded with lowering the flag. 

To address the issue, we started making a few changes. In the summer of 2007, we eliminated the noon Flagpole. In 2008, we moved everyone to a more shaded location, built a small stage, and gathered campers in a circle. The needle was beginning to move in the right direction, but we realized that something major had to be done; Flagpole was too important in bringing the entire camp community together.

A Useful Idea
In fall 2008, Ray Zetye, the camp director, was watching a group of families play Wiffle Ball on a field that he had built for the weekend. With an old wire-fence backstop in place, Ray constructed an outfield wall from cardboard and pieces of spare wood. The family campers loved the ballpark. More importantly, however, Ray noticed how they were using it.

In typical sports programs, teams are divided to match people up with similar abilities--adults play in adult leagues, girls play on girl teams, etc. However, the goal at family camp is to ensure that families have the opportunity for friendly competition among participants of all abilities, something that can be difficult to provide. 

During that particular game, Ray witnessed the star of family camp weekend--the champion of the tournament--hit a homerun to win it all in the final game. Her name was Emma, she was 9, and she was a tenacious competitor. Suddenly, Ray had an idea.

Inspired By Emma
Inspired by Emma, Ray brought in a sketch of a concept for a Wiffle Ball stadium to the staff retreat later that fall. His idea fit well into our desire to have a program unique to the camping world (something we are all searching for). With the Wiffle Ball concept firmly in place, we had to solve two issues--where to build it and how to pay for it.

The first issue was resolved fairly quickly. Camp Jewell, like most New England camps, finds flat land is at a premium. Thus, the only feasible locations for construction were the current sports field or the dilapidated tennis courts from the 1950s. Needless to say, “tennis racquet” no longer appears in our “what-to-bring-to-camp list.”

The second issue was more challenging. We had to decide whether to save money and build the park ourselves or have it built by a contractor. In the end, we decided on the former approach because we had a $25,000 grant from the YMCA, a gifted camp-director’s vision and a property-manager’s passion. 

Mario Hurtado, the property manager, is everything a camp director would want. He has decades of experience, is a skilled tradesmen, understands the big picture, and has earned himself a tremendous amount of respect and admiration from staff, board members and volunteers. With this in mind, it came as no surprise that Mario was able to spend less and build more than planned, with the help of over 50 adult and child volunteers he recruited!

Gaining Momentum
As summer camp approached last year, the stadium began to take shape. Thousands of children witnessed the project’s construction when they stayed at camp during school visits, or watched videos on YouTube. Volunteers returned for several weekends to see the construction through. It was a delightful showcase for parents during open houses, sending the message that Camp Jewell, despite the recession, was still growing and innovating.

When the summer staff arrived in early June, excitement was palpable. The staff members knew we were starting a new tradition, and were aware that they would play a part in the next 100+ years of creating memories. The great question was, “How would this new, massive, unique structure actually improve Flagpole?” That’s when Ray had a second brilliant idea.

While his longevity at camp is commendable (he has been here since age eight), Ray’s creativity and ability to empower others are his greatest strengths. He put his leadership to the test by allowing staff members to design the Flagpole program. Then I was asked if I liked the new name of the Wiffle Ball park, the Thunderdome. I realized “thunder” best described the volume level from campers and staff yelling exuberantly. In reality, it was a “park,” not a “dome.” But this was camp, right? We have a program called “Dutch Auction,” which is neither of Dutch origin nor even an auction. Of course, I liked the name.

I had little knowledge of what to expect at the first Flagpole on opening day. Moments after the last camper checked in, I heard the first of several sound checks and the goofy voice of our special-activities coordinator, bellowing from the Thunderdome.

Within Striking Distance
When it was time for Flagpole, I started making my way to the Thunderdome. About halfway there, the song “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC began blaring over the hills. During the last phase of construction, we had built a two-floor tower behind home plate that I now noticed held two, large stereo speakers at the top. Also there was a giddy camp director.

When I climbed to the top of what is now called “the tower of power,” I was amazed. More than 600 campers and staff were dancing, shouting “THUNDER” in unison with the song. The energy was almost overwhelming. Ray was in a joyful state.

At the first Flagpole, Ray and I performed the initial welcome together. As we made our way onto the field, the song called “The Big Show” began, and the crowd went crazy. 

After our exit, each senior staff member was welcomed by a personally chosen song, representing the personality of that individual. For instance, as Phil Holden, a great staff member, entered, campers and other staff began marching like storm troopers to the Star Wars theme song. When Alison Pilon, one of our more charismatic staff members, entered to the Care Bears theme song, the crowd began prancing and dancing.

The Beat Goes On
The positive effects of the Thunderdome have exceeded our expectations. We had to build extra beds to accommodate the 100+ campers who had signed up for another session in the summer. Flagpole went from dead last in the camper surveys to first, contributing to a 10-percent increase in camper retention for this summer. We had unknowingly created the platform for our marketing campaign in 2010. We also gave a little girl a place to hit a ball over her dad’s head during a family Wiffle Ball game.    

Amazingly, the traditionalists were happy with the change. We still raise and lower the flag, make announcements, and sing songs. The difference is that our neighbors can hear us now. 

The Thunderdome includes:

Pressure-treated wooden bleachers to hold 600 campers and staff, with walkways large enough for comfortably dancing around during camp songs

Regulation Wiffle Ball field with a distance of 67 feet from home plate to the center-field wall

12-by-12 concession stand with serving window

4-by-8 old-fashioned-style scoreboard, with numbers that can be changed from inside

12-by-12 second-story announcer’s booth

Wooden batter’s box deck and pitcher’s mound to prevent erosion.

Eric Tucker is the executive director at YMCA’s Camp Jewell in Connecticut. For more information, visit www.campjewellymca.org.