No Second Chances

By Gary Forster

Imagine this happening the first day of camp... Mom and Dad are driving Johnny to camp and miss the turnoff. After circling back they discover the camp sign is partly hidden by branches, and has a couple of letters that have fallen off. Hmmm...

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They drive into camp past tall uncut weeds and try to find where to go. There are no signs, so they look for cars. After mistakenly trying the staff parking area, they finally find the office where other parents are also looking where to go.

They ask several college age people, “Do you work here?” until they find one who admits he does.

On their way to Johnny’s cabin they see the lake where lifejackets and paddles are piled in heaps next to the boats (this perks up Johnny’s interest). But mom can’t see a lifeguard or a sign or a fence.

They drive by the maintenance shop where there appears to be a display of every previous vehicle the camp had ever owned, like some life-size rusty diorama. And though the dumpster was actually the very first facility they noticed driving in, it seems as though trash around camp hasn’t made it that far yet.

Finally arriving at the cabin, they trip over the uneven steps up to the ripped screen door. Johnny’s too late for a top bunk, and mom can’t help but notice all the nails sticking out of the bunks and walls where past campers have “customized” their towel storage options in decades past.

“The bottom bunk may be safer, dear,” she says. She looks at who she guesses is the counselor, and back at her son. “Johnny,” she adds, “if you don’t like it here... if anything happens... you call us right away and we’ll come get you.”

She hugs him like she may never see him again, and teary-eyed goes out the door.

Fairy tale? I don’t think so. Imagine what mom and dad are discussing on the way home in the car. Guess what kind of calls that camp director is going to have to defend herself against for the next few days?

Parent’s-Eye View
Only a parent can ever really understand the immense trust it takes to leave a child at camp. Not only do they have to fend off the buyer’s remorse that can accompany any big ticket expense, but they have to constantly look for confirmation that either a.) they made the right choice, or b.) their worst fears are justified. To them, it is a life or death proposition.

And it all comes to a head on check-in day. Their very first impressions will set the tone for which list they’re going to compile: right choice or worst fears.

They have so little information to go on, so little time to collect it, that they process everything they see—things completely invisible to staff and even returning parents.

In my opening story, imagine now how different the camper’s experience would be if the parent’s final words were instead: “Johnny, you’re so lucky! I can’t believe you get to stay in such a great place. We’re so jealous!”

The difference will affect every camper, every counselor, and every parent that those parents come in contact with.

The only way to make that happen is to become fanatical about first impressions. Someone needs to see the camp with the new eyes of a visitor every day. If you can’t train yourself or your staff to be that aware, get real visitors to do the evaluating for you.

We get lots of guests visiting our camp through the year. I ask each one their first impression, but I really push hard on friends to be brutally honest with what they saw. And when I visit other camps, if they ask, I likewise give them a list (and photographs, too!).

Here’s a checklist to get you started in evaluating your own first impression. It might be good to have all of your key staff do the same exercise, and then do it together as a group to compare notes and make assignments as to who will make what corrections. Like any skill, seeing takes practice to develop.

First Impression Checklist:
Start with the map to camp you send to your parents, and begin where they leave the last main road. How many of these do you see?

• Lack of directional signs
“Am I in the right place?
Where do I park?
Are they expecting me?”

• “Dumpster view” of dining hall and maintenance area

• Piles of junk

• Dangerous looking things
Equipment in disrepair, unfenced, unsupervised

• Dogs running around.
Dogs barking.

• Staff walk by without saying, “Can I help you?”

• Staff aren’t in uniform or nametag (so you don’t even know if there are any staff)

• No lighting for paths to cabins (if guests arrive at night)

• Cabin exteriors neglected
Broken doors
Rotting wood (from no overhang or no gutters)
Needs painting
Nails sticking out
Graffiti
Broken railing (that my kid can fall off of...)
Illegal steps (too steep, last step too big, rocks to trip on...)
Trash (swept out the door. Lost & found clothing)

• Mattresses old, dirty

• Room temperature too hot or too cold, or both (and no way to change it)

• No privacy in bathroom/shower
Bathrooms dark, dirty, smelly, wet...

• Program equipment broken, but still laying out
Tetherball poles without balls
Basketball hoops with torn nets
Junk boats
Broken picnic tables
Coke machine empty
No ping-pong balls
(It’s the little things, too!)

Gary Forster recently retired from a full career in organized camping. He still speaks at conferences and volunteers. Reach him at gary@garyforster.com.