How getting out of the office during camp changed everything

James Davis writes for CampHacker courtesy of Summer Camp Revolution, and because he loves you.

Summer is here, baby. All those months of planning have been leading up to this single moment. Preparation stops, counting camper weeks stops, staff training prep stops, and people arrive. The people we were put on this planet to serve.

But there’s one problem, right? 6 weeks from now, many of us are going to be sitting at home with our families, saying something like, “There’s only a couple of weeks left. I can do this.”

Burn out.

It’s something every camp director has faced at some point or another. Amidst all of the laughing, smiling faces bouncing around camp, there’s a director who is trying to figure out what to do about some staff member who doesn’t seem to get it, or how to break through with an incredibly homesick camper.

I still feel this way, on occasion. I used to feel it a lot more. I’d love to share the one thing I’ve changed about my approach to camp directing in the last 3 years that has changed, well, everything.

I got out of the damn office

My first summer at Vanderkamp was a humbling one. I had come from a camp where we were doing 250 or so kids per week, and our first week of summer camp here had 17 campers. Not a typo. We had 17 kids, and 15 summer staff members.

Feeling self-conscious, I grinned nervously at every kid who came through the door that Sunday, wondering what I had gotten myself into.

But that night at the camp fire just felt like camp as usual, to me. Just a little smaller.

Feeling a new sense of resolve, I woke up the next day ready to make it the best week of camp ever. I gave my staff a few atta-boys and atta-girls and we sent kids off to their first activity periods. I reflexively went to my office. An hour came and went, and they began a new activity period. About halfway through the next hour, I gave a start.

What was I doing in my office!? Camp was happening right outside my window, and I was sitting around responding to emails and checking Facebook.

 I realized something – in my previous camp-directing, I had taken a totally reactionary approach to the actual day to day of summer camp.  Problems would come up, and I would go solve them. I was a fireman, waiting by my radio for a call, but playing dominoes in the meantime. The size of the camp didn’t allow for a lot of time sitting around, and it certainly felt like I was staying pretty busy.

But with 17 kids? The problems hadn’t started yet.

Then, one of those “ah-ha” moments. And it might not seem like one to you, at all, but it was to me at the time. With 17 kids, my presence among them might delay the problems, or even make some not happen at all.

So I got out of the damned office, and I never went back.

This is NOT the view from my office.

This is NOT the view from my office.

Why getting out of the office helped both camp AND me

So, the benefits of getting out of the office were more than I ever could have expected.

First of all, as I suspected, me being around the kids who were at camp had a profound impact on them. They didn’t try a lot of the stuff they may have tried when it was just other much younger adults around. When the camp director is around, you’re pretty unlikely to swear, or bully others, or whatever.

And staff? They’re pretty unlikely to sit and chat with each other while ignoring the kids when the director is around, too. They’ll also get to see a living, breathing example of all that stuff you were teaching them during staff training.

What was more? I became a real human being.

I mean from the camper’s perspective. Now, I wasn’t just “the director.” I was James. The guy who was out playing soccer, or taking you on a hike, or swimming with you during swimming time.

If a camper had a problem, I didn’t have to ask her name before we started talking.
There was HUGE power in this. The kids who I needed to talk to about behavior-related issues had already had a positive experience with me at some point. The kids who were homesick knew I wasn’t just trying to game them into staying – they knew I ACTUALLY cared about them.

So, sure, this change really helped camp. But the person it helped the most was me.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t get into camping to sit in an office and wait for problems to arise. I feel fulfillment when solving problems, but I could solve problems anywhere.

I work at camp because I care about kids. I loved being a counselor so much that at some point someone asked me if I wanted to be an area group director. And then a summer program director. And now an Executive Director. And I love the business of camp. I love running numbers, and doing marketing, and raising funds. But what I really love is kids.

Being out there with the kids feels like camp, again. Not only are there fewer problems to deal with since I am a more active presence, I don’t mind dealing with the problems as much because I’ve spent my days filling myself up with the parts of camp I love. I’ve returned to the times where I leave summer with a sense of loss instead of a sense of relief. It means everything to me.

So how do I get my work done?

Ah, yes - I'm the director. I can sign for that.

Ah, yes - I'm the director. I can sign for that.

Right, so you’re thinking – “That’s awesome that you like to go out and play in the mud and all, but who handles the grown-up work that needs to get done?”

I do! I just do it differently. I can have the office lines forwarded to my cell phone if someone needs me NOW (people rarely need me NOW), and I carve out 2 hours a day (when the counselors are facilitating free time, changing, cleaning up the lodges, etc) to do office work. I take that time very seriously, and I plow through all of my office work then.

And when problems do inevitably arise, I handle them. Sometimes I’m wrapped in a towel when this happens instead of dressed professionally, but since people are used to me this way, they don’t even seem to notice.

I also take great pains during this time of the year to get done everything I’d otherwise need to do to prepare for the fall right now. Retreat correspondences, budget work, etc. It’s all done before camp begins.

Does it scale?

Now, our camp is not as big as some out there to be sure. But we’re doing a lot more than 17 kids per week at this point. We’ve had weeks with 100-110 kids, and our leadership team is still dedicated to not sitting around waiting for problems to come up. That’s what walky-talkies and cell-phones are for. Have a problem? I’ll be playing soccer. Hit me on the radio and I’ll come help.

As camp as grown, I’ve also done my best to keep that precious ratio of leadership staff in tact that we found to be optimal that first summer. We did about 35 kids a week then, and there were 2 of us. That kind of felt like overkill. Now that we’ll do about 90-100 kids a week this summer, there are 4 of us. 1 person who totally gets our vision and can execute on it for every 25 kids. When something is going on around camp, one of us will be there. Not to supervise, or control, or lead – to be fully present in the moment.

I’d like to be clear about one thing: what works for us here may not work in this exact way for everyone, and that’s okay. Even if you need to take the exact opposite schedule that I do (in the office most of the day, out of it for 2 hours), I think there could be huge benefits. Chances are good that you were one of the best camp counselors at your camp growing up, and that’s what kept you in camping until now. Give the kids who come to the camp you direct a taste of what you have to offer.