Days 5/6/7/etc.: Camp Tradition

                This past week or so I’ve been in New York City seeing my older brother graduate from college. The ceremony I went to (which was actually a sort of unofficial send-off devoid of diploma-giving and hand-shaking) was four hours long. Four hours. And the worst part: they weren’t even an entertaining or enlightening four hours. They were boring for me, for my family, and even for my graduate brother. Near the end, there was a hooding of doctoral candidates—the ceremonial equivalent of tacking “Dr.” at the beginning of each of their names. But the whole thing felt contrived and out of place. Who were those candidates? And why should anyone care that someone is draping velvet over their shoulders?

                It made me think about tradition—one of the major themes in my research about camps. More specifically, it made me think about the role of context in tradition and that the best traditions I’ve learned about at the camps I’ve visited require serious contextualization.

                For instance, I visited a relatively new family Camp in Vermont called Ohana, itself a branch of Aloha Foundation Camps. Ohana structures its days very loosely, allowing parents and their kids to decide which activities they’d like to do. They cycle through sets of families weekly, and, as such, repeat their evening program each week. On the final night, they do a camp fire—a tradition that, to my knowledge, involves s’mores and sitting around a fire.

                On the other hand, at Dark Waters Camp in Vermont, they have theme days throughout the summer, one of which was Prohibition Day (PD) in summer 2014. Three days before PD, counselors announced that sugary drinks were now illegal at camp. On PD, half of the counselors took all the campers on an out-of-camp trip while the other half went about transforming the camps into Speakeasies and Dance Halls where sugary drinks were quietly available.[1]

                I point to these examples not the show the flaws in Ohana Family Camp (Indeed, the camp’s view on the importance of child-only summer camp and its emphasis on creating new bonds within families seemed to me eternally valuable), but rather to show the rootedness of certain traditions. A camp fire may happen every week, though that doesn’t necessarily imply that its presence will become vital to camp life. PD, or any of the various theme days at Dark Waters, by virtue of their sure radial-ness and event gravity, basically demand that kids love them. And I’m sure they did. And I’m sure when the campers return this summer, they will be waiting for the day sugary drinks get banned.

                Traditions at camp seem to me to function best when campers, counselors, and directors alike take the time to honor their eternality while still maintaining the flexibility and creative thinking to recreate camp magic within said traditions. I have seen camps that have taken a negative position on many of its long-held traditions. They believe many traditions are archaic and stodgy and need changing. I have also seen camps that are so dogmatic about tradition that it seems nearly impossible for a new camper to catch up. But my favorite camps have been the ones who ask you to sit down so they can tell you about a camp tradition that is at once complex and wholly inclusive.[2]

                That, I think, was what was missing from the doctorial robbing. Nobody sat me down to explain the pile of pages, and hours of meetings, and history, and general sweat, blood, and brain power symbolized by placing velvet on robes. I, in other words, lacked context and thus inclusion.



[1] Please Note: if you are from/affiliated with Camp Dark Waters, I am sorry for having pulled away the curtain of your theme day programming. In my defense, it was too creative (and for that matter educational) not to share.

[2] Stated mathematically, this is just the Principle of Induction, which states that if some event has occurred during distinct circumstances n times in the past, it will necessarily happen on the (n+1)th occasion. (e.g., with regards to camp: if, for as far back as your memory and the memory of everyone you’ve asked extends, the second Thursday’s dinner has been Baked Ziti, then it’s fair to assume that this second Thursday’s dinner will also be Baked Ziti. And if the meal isn’t Baked Ziti, then it is cause for revolt, or, at the very least, serious camp gossip. Tradition, like the Mathematical Principle of Induction, seems to me a matter of law. 

One of the docks at Camp Dark Waters in Medford, New Jersey. Some days the camps just float down this river in intertubes.What a wonderful camp!

One of the docks at Camp Dark Waters in Medford, New Jersey. Some days the camps just float down this river in intertubes.What a wonderful camp!

Hello from the Head Counsellor - Head Counsellor - #1

The Job Description(ish)

CampHacker Matt Honsberger

CampHacker Matt Honsberger

Hello, friends! Once again, I am very excited to be writing this blog and I hope that you (whomever you may be!) will find some value in these words.

So as I mentioned in my first article , I had the privilege of being the Head Counsellor at Cairn this past summer. Now, before I continue, I’ll give some context. Cairn is a fairly small residential camp so the position of Head Counsellor at Cairn would be synonymous of the Section Head of larger camps that require multiple Head Counsellors. At Cairn, the position of the Head Counsellor is a part of the senior leadership team (along with the Asst. Director, Integration Co-ordinatior, Program Director and LIT Directors) and answers directly to the Co-Directors. I realize that camps have a myriad of different structural nuances so I hope that all makes sense. 

The Job Description.

Based on my experience, the role of the Head Counsellor covers most of these general aspects:

Supervising the Counselling staff and ensuring that they are a) providing the campers with an extraordinary experience and b) fostering a staff community of learning, cohesion and growth.

Ensuring the safety and inclusion of every camper through direct interactions and being a support system/resource for the Counselling staff.

Acting as a liaison between the resource staff (program/facility and leadership staff) and the counselling staff for the transfer camper information, individual needs and performance feedback.

Along with the general responsibilities of a senior staff, the above is an umbrella job description for a Head Counsellor. For some more specific ones, check out the links below for some from different camps in North America. 

Now, for everything else.


One of my favorite things about being the Head Counsellor this past summer was the room for my own flare to shine in the position. After two summers of having a very specific role as the LIT director, I was thrilled to have a job where I was able to assess what parts of my job I wanted to focus on and when. For me, that meant while I followed my job description to the letter, how I followed it was a bit more lucid. My “Ish”. 

My “Ish” this summer was building up the counselling staff to ensure that the care that they were giving the campers was exemplary. So even though I was still a resource and was ready to jump into a bullying or “cabin-clashing” situation when needed, my focus was on building the community and skills of the counsellors, so that they would in-turn, be able to be more independent in taking excellent care of the campers. 

Now, at this point, you may be thinking that I was a giant slacker and just let my “Ish” develop as the summer went on or used it to avoid a part of my description. To set the record straight (also, to keep my employment for next summer), I had a plan. 

Here are a few things that I thought about when developing my strategy for achieving my “Ish”:

What have I learned about the staff and their skills so far?
- be careful not to develop any presumptions about the staff, before you actually see them in action. Aka. Get to know them a bit first before you start creating a vision.

What skills do I have that can best supplement a certain aspect of my job?
- you know what you are best at, make the best part of you into the best part of your job!

What does camp need from me... a voice of leadership? a person who has been around camp for awhile? a member of the staff community?
And is my “Ish” going to interfere with any of that?

What will be the ripple effect of my Ish...
...for camp
...for me
...for the campers
...for the counsellors
ex. By spending time to develop the counsellors hard skills as a group, would it be possible to have them leave rest hour for a bit for a short development time?

What are my goals for this Ish?
- similar to above but focusing on what results I was hoping to see

What is my back-up plan?
- never leave home without one!

So there you have it! 

Something that I hope you take away from this is that your “Ish” is one way for you to make your summer about more than just the job description. 

I’d like to know, did you have an “Ish” this summer? How did you take your job description and add your personal touch to it? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. I would love to hear them!

Until next time!

Matt “Iscus” Honsberger

Things I Wouldn't Know If I Didn't Go To Camp - Part 4

Breaking Down Challenges Into Smaller, More Manageable Pieces

Three whistles, a siren, and a foghorn.  The three signals of a waterfront emergency at camp (when I worked there).  As a staff member, when the signals sounded, it was our job to find the missing camper as quickly as possible.  

A missing camper is a terrifying thing.  And it is at this time, when a camper may need us most, that we have to overcome our fear and anxiety for the situation, and perform out best search as a team, on land, and in the water.

With a heavy load of responsibility on our shoulders, we learn a critical lesson for leaders.  Finding a missing camper is challenging, and the protocol we deploy as a team of staff members is one of the most tactical and strategic out of all of camp’s protocols.

I’ve already used the word team in this blog post twice.  That too, like the search procedure was tactical.  As a staff, we would not be effective at all if we just started yelling and running around camp looking for the missing person.  We also wouldn’t be working as a team either.

The emergency search protocol is a team event, where the big challenge of finding a missing camper as quickly as possible is broken down into more manageable chunks (or roles).

There are a few major divisions of responsibility that help us act more quickly and increase our effectiveness.

The first is identifying who on staff, in the event of an emergency, would be a runner (ground search) and who would be a diver (water search).  The runners would be further split across three land routes, and deployed in a beginning-end or end-beginning fashion in order to have the most coverage of the surface area of camp’s property.

The divers would also be split.  The swimming area was divided into four lanes, and each lane had a different depth at the bottom of the lake.  The divers would always be in the same lane, with their own team for lane 1, lane 2, lane 3, and lane 4.  There would also be divers who covered the boating docks, the shallow end, and the shoreline.

No single person was responsible for finding the missing camper.  By splitting up the staff across the various roles, we acted as a team.  Acting as a team made the bigger challenge much more manageable.

Stop Marketing To Yourself

Go after the ones the other camps leave behind

Summer camps have a tendency to aim their marketing material at people like themselves - those who already love summer camp.   With some planning on our part we can better reach out to families who don't know the value of what we do.

In this presentation, Travis Allison, talked about a couple of super-easy marketing concepts and offered 10 Tips to market your summer camp to families who are new to the idea of summer camp.