“What do you do the rest of the year?” Perfectly well intentioned people always ask.
Go F$%K yourself.
SORRY! That isn’t what I meant. I meant to say the canned answer I always give. “The big thing is recruiting campers and staff. It is kind of like planning a wedding and a birthday party for 200 people that don’t know each other.”
No, what I meant to say is go take a hike. What do I do the rest of the year? What do you do the rest of the year you piece of sh!t!? NO NO NO NO NO. I never get frustrated.
Ok, I get a little frustrated and need my The Summer Camp Society people to pick me up when I am down. Kurtz would kick my butt if I didn’t get a quick plug in for the best community of camp people talking about big ideas and sharing specific tactics. You really should think about joining us.
Friendship Bracelets and Capture the Flag
One of the hardest parts about running camp has nothing to do with running camp. It is all about how other people look at us. How many people have called you a camp counselor in the last year? How does it feel when people just assume all you do is play capture the flag and make friendship bracelets all year? I DON’T EVEN KNOW HOW TO MAKE A FRIENDSHIP BRACELET!
Or almost worse when you tell a quick story about something mildly serious, like working with the health department or running payroll and your neighbor is shocked that “Wow, I never realized how much goes into running camp.” YA! OF COURSE YOU DIDN’T AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT IT IS LIKE TO BE AN ACCOUNTANT BUT I JUST GIVE YOU THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT!
Ok ok ok ok. That’s enough Jack. I of course logically know that it isn’t a big deal and that it is my job to change the narrative of the people in my community to understand what camp is or to decide I don’t care what they think.
Who Are We Losing?
But I wonder how many great camp directors have left the camp world because they didn’t feel like constantly answering that question. “What do you do the rest of the year?” Or how many potential great camp directors go become teachers, nurses, or lawyers because they don’t think camp is valued in their community.
In my personal community we are slowly changing the mindset of those around us by inviting them to more events, building content, and in general, just trying to bring them a little closer to what we do. At the same time, we are looking at expanding our offerings and better telling the story of our impact. I think that is all well and good. It is good for Stomping Ground and probably more than that, it just makes me feel better, but that isn’t what I want to talk about today.
What about our seasonal staff?
I wrote an article last year about 5 reasons staff work at camp and dig into why staff choose camp over the million other options. It is a perfectly good article, but I missed something. I missed that the reason staff work at camp is because the narrative they can tell themselves and the people they care about.
We have an awesome staff member who wants to be a nurse. Let’s call her Jess. She just graduated undergrad with a different degree and will be starting nursing school this fall. She works in the hospital, was on our medical team, and makes enough money to support herself. Her parents are plenty well off, she has great connections, is smart, hardworking, and compassionate. She loves camp and wants to return next summer. I don’t think she will.
I don’t think she will because her parents think camp is just fun. They don’t see her staying up late taking care of crying campers or keeping track of injuries and medication. The narrative Jess hears everyday from the people that care the most about her is that camp is fun, but mostly a waste of time.
Rugby Boys Don’t Care About Impact Stories
I played rugby in college. I was the captain of the team, basically all my friends were rugby players. I skipped a lot of class to work on schemes to make us better or plan parties… I had tons of social capital with the rugby team. I proudly wore my camp shirts and was viciously attacked for working camp. For me I didn’t care. I told stories of camp, but none of them ever included impact with kids. The people closest to me in college thought camp was a waste of time and that I was a weirdo for wanting to be there. They thought the funny stories that happened during off time were cool or the stories of camp staff finding summer partners might be fun. I read the audience and quickly realized the narrative of camp that I had around impact and kids was not worth telling with gruff college boys. I don’t think I did camp huge favors with the stories I told, but I wouldn’t have done any good talking about comforting crying homesick campers or the change I saw in the kids I worked with.
Our staff, like us, face tons of social pressure to choose not to work at camp. Our job is to help them build a narrative about their experience for when they go back home. This, like self care, won’t be one size fits all and this like so many things at camp isn’t just about what is said or what is done but is a combination of all things camp.
I am just now working through how this works at Stomping Ground and we are far from perfect. For us it has started with some changes actual changes in the job like paying people more and giving staff more time off. That is a start and is important, but I think there is a lot more we can do around the edges.
Some ideas I have for helping the narrative our staff tell their community.
Meet the Parents. I used to be a strict I talk to the staff not their parents guy. Now, I want to meet and spend time with as many staff parents as possible. If they love me the chances that they will support their child returning as a staff member are through the roof. Plus, maybe they will become donors or at the very least advocates in their communities.
Meet the Friends. We talk about staff recruiting and using current staff to recruit their friends. I love this method by the way, but I think it doubles as a retention tool. Klee and I spent two weeks on the road last year meeting staff at their colleges and attempting to recruit their friends. Recruiting their friends had mixed results, but now, many of their friends who didn’t work at camp still love camp and support the idea of camp because they met a person.
Get Staff Jobs. Real ones. ACA is working on Project Real Job to make camp look more legit. I am in. One of our best narrative changers for current staff is to be able to point to former staff that we have helped get what our staff call “Big Girl, or boy, Jobs” with benefits.
We could brainstorm a million ways to help our staff change the narrative of camp. The goal for me this year is to connect with more people in my current staff community and focus on trying to really understand what are the social pressures our staff are facing from the people they care about. From their we will develop plans and ideas for how to mitigate those pressures or change our staff structure.
One of my favorite parts of The Summer Camp Society is getting to share results and ideas like this with a small community of people that it. Every week in The Summer Camp Society we share ideas about what is working at camp across North America in topics like Staff Recruiting, Program Development, Marketing, Mental Health, and so much more. Do you want a new group of badass camp director friends? Join us?