What can parents expect of a camp director?

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It is reasonable for parents to have high expectations of camp directors − after all, they are trusting them with their children. Some parents, however, have expectations that are not realistic, but more on that later.

First and foremost, parents can expect that their children will be safe and secure. Safety is a director’s top priority.

A safe camp environment begins by hiring a well-qualified staff comprised of individuals with camping experience and qualifications in CPR, first aid, water safety and camp skills. During pre-camp training sessions, these skills are reinforced through practising emergency drills and mock problem scenarios. The director and senior staff’s constant and vigilant supervision and evaluation of the rest of the staff ensure that all safety measures are maintained.

The director, with assistance from his staff, makes sure that the property and buildings are safe and sound. No detail can be overlooked. Every nail on the dock must be flush with the wooden surface; every precarious dead tree limb removed; every medication locked and secured in the health centre; every fire extinguisher operational and in its proper place.

A director is constantly touring the property with his eyes and ears open, and trains his staff to be equally observant. Every activity from archery to zip lines has its own safety rules, which are posted, taught to the campers and enforced by the staff.       

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Parents can expect that their child will be welcomed, cared for, valued, accepted and respected by all the staff. Camp counsellors are selected for their patience, understanding, competence, experience, intelligence and skill. They choose to be camp counsellors because they enjoy working with children in the out of doors.

Some are volunteers and most work for a modest salary.  Camp counsellors are expected to treat each child fairly and equitably, especially the challenging children. Each pre-camp, I reminded my staff, “It may not be realistic to like every child in your cabin equally but no child should ever perceive that you have favourites.” At all times and in all circumstances, I expected my counsellors to put their campers first. 

The health care staff will look after your child’s physical needs with help from the parents to provide complete medical history and information. Any medications brought to camp should be well-labelled and in their original containers.

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On arrival, these will be collected and stored in the health centre to be distributed at the correct time by the health care staff except for EpiPens, which are carried in a fanny pack by children with severe allergies.

You can expect that your child will be well fed by the kitchen staff, who will be made aware of information provided by you of your child’s food allergies and any special dietary needs. Camp food managers plan their menus to provide a healthy, nutritious diet while keeping children’s food preferences in mind.

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As one camp chef explained to me, on a rainy day when the campers are not in the best mood, “I will spontaneously change the menu from fish (not the campers’ favourite) to lasagna, Caesar salad and garlic bread, a choice much more to their liking.” On cool August mornings, my cook always included hot chocolate with breakfast to warm up the campers’ bodies and spirits.

You can expect that your camper will be kept busy, active and happy all day long, with a period of rest in the middle of the day and then a good night’s sleep. There may be short periods of unstructured time because directors recognize that today’s highly scheduled children need a little time to relax, chat with friends or watch the clouds roll by. But you can expect that whether your child is at camp for a week or a month, they will be exposed to new experiences and learn new skills.  

A parent can expect that a camp director will have trained his staff to meet the emotional as well as the physical needs of campers. Staff are taught to recognize and deal with homesickness, bullying, fears and anxieties. I admired how my young staff handled challenging situations like a rattlesnake on a portage path or a severe thunderstorm at midnight.

On occasion, a parent’s expectations are unrealistic. One mother of a new hesitant camper asked the director to telephone her on the first three days of her child’s two-week stay to assure her that her daughter was well and happy. The director refused, then explained.

First the child deserved at least three days to become accustomed to her new environment and there was little to be gained by telling the parent of her possible slow progress.

Second, the director had a hundred campers to care for and could not commit to this special treatment for one child. The director did make one comforting call on day four. I assured my parents that I would personally be in contact with them immediately if necessary.

Each camp has a different routine for communicating with parents. Some post daily photos and information on a website; most urge campers to send letters home; some require the counsellor to write a letter to the parents shortly after the camper’s arrival. Some camps will receive and relay emails to the campers. Be sure to inquire how and when the camp will communicate with you and how you should communicate with your child.

You can expect your camper to return home happy, healthy and maybe a little different. As one parent expressed it: “Camp was so wonderful for Erica after a year of many family changes. Her teacher marvelled about the stories and pictures Erica shared and how much she had changed over the summer. She had found a new confidence in herself.”

Research still needs to be done on how this happens, but the Waterloo Research Project has proved that it does happen. Happy camping!

Catherine Ross is a Canadian Camping Association Communications Officer, former camp director and author of six books and countless articles on camping.