‘Dealing’ with Diversity

Language is important. It’s not only an expression of our thoughts, feelings and actions, but I believe that it has the power to influence those thoughts, feelings and actions.

I recently had the same conversation with two different organizations about Diversity. On the surface these two organizations were saying the same thing, “diversity affects camp” but their language about how diversity affects their camps was vastly different and it’s stuck with me for a few weeks now.

One camp said, “this is how we deal with diversity.” The other camp said, “this is how we’ve embraced diversity.” Notice the difference?

Let me explain what I heard: One camp sees diversity as a challenge, the other sees diversity as an opportunity. One camp is hoping they don’t have to deal with it today, and the other camp is hoping it gets to make camp more inclusive with each interaction. One is reactive, one is proactive. One camp sees diversity as a problem that needs to get dealt with, while the other camp sees diversity as an opportunity to better serve its community.

Language is important: We deal with problems…we embrace opportunities. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in camping takes serious dedication and thoughtfulness, but that doesn’t mean it’s a problem…it’s an opportunity. And to get back to my original point that language affects thoughts and actions, the second camp (the one embracing diversity) is doing amazing things within their community to get every kid to camp, while the first camp (the one dealing with diversity) not so much…

I understand no one consciously wants camp to be more exclusive. We’re all doing our best here, and I don’t mean to rag on camps/professionals for every little word they use. I know someone could easily knit pick my words and make me look like a real jerk from time to time. However, I do think we can try to be better about our everyday language: be intentional, be kind and take some time to think through how others will internalize your words and actions.

Here’s my challenge to you (and myself): Think before we speak. Are we seeing (and saying) that challenges are opportunities; not just around DEI but also around programming, staffing and development? How is the team speaking about important topics? Are they solving a problem or are they embracing an opportunity to be better?

Good luck, I believe in you.

*These words have been my own, based on my own experiences and do not reflect any organization or association that I’m affiliated with. -Drew

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Hard Work

I recently posted on LinkedIn about the hard work that camp sponsors like myself put into our jobs in order to support camps and it got some blunt feedback. I was caught a bit off guard and needed to take a step back to really think about my position. I’ll reveal how this encounter ended at the end of this short blog, but for now I want to explore this idea of “hard work”.

Take a minute and think about your day. You probably woke up, got ready, then headed off to the camp office building (or in my case the attic office). Now what did you do there? Probably returned some emails, made a few calls, interviewed three or four camp counselors, did some summer camp planning and made a social media post or two. I hope you were able to get outside too. (It was sunny and almost above freezing here in Iowa.) There was surely more to it, but what I just described is a pretty typical work day for a Camp Director (like I was) in early February…not too panicky yet, but still pretty busy with lots of little projects happening.

My day was similar: Woke up at 4:45am to get to my part time job at the local rec center, answered some work emails whenever I wasn’t lifeguarding, got home around noon, called a couple insurance agents then a couple clients, had an appointment back in town, did a few social media posts, continued to edit a podcast episode and am now writing this blog at 6:30pm.

Who worked harder?

Neither and Both.

Because work is subjective. Who works harder, a farmer or a chef? Neither and both. Who works harder, an accountant or a salesperson? Neither and both. Who works harder, a Camp Director or a Camp Counselor? Neither and both.

There’s a stigma that Camp Directors self impose on their own special community. The idea is that they put in longer hours, greater effort and do harder work than almost any other profession. They are right and they are wrong.

They do work extremely hard, but not any harder than a Counselor comforting a homesick camper at 1:00am, not any harder than the Caretaker mowing in 100 degree heat for 6 hours and not any harder than the Camp Vendor trying to make a living one sale/training at a time.

How do I know? Because I’ve seen both it from both sides. In fact I’ve seen it from all 4 of those sides!

This “work harder” stigma has got to go. We need to stop priding ourselves on the long hours, the pennies pinched and the amount of emails returned on a Saturday night.

It’s killing us. And I mean literally killing us. The amount of stress, anxiety and depression this kind of lifestyle is having on Camp Directors (mostly young, mostly entry level) is absolutely appalling. We need to take action and in this case action is inaction. We need to take a break!

It’s hard to set boundaries, I get it. For example I’m still writing this free blog at 7:00pm on a Monday night for an audience that might completely disagree with me. But we have to take back our time, our mental health and our lives.

You’re replaceable at work, not at home.

Please, take some time to evaluate your schedule, your success markers and yourself. It’s high time we all set better boundaries and realized long hours don’t always yield the best outcomes. We need to support each other through this as well. We’re a community and this community can help.

Now, back to my LinkedIn. My original post was all wrong, it pitted my efforts against others and that’s not fair or accurate. We all work harder. I went back and explained myself a bit and edited my post to reflect my true opinion. Feel free to check it out and add me there. I’d love to connect.

Happy Camping and please, take care of yourself…you work too hard.

Lessons Learned 2021.

Flexibility. Commitment. Hard-Work. Support. If any of those words strike a chord with your 2021, then perhaps you’re like me and will enjoy the following:

2021 was really the first year that I took a deep dive into consulting, training and running my own business full-time. It was eye opening, difficult, rewarding and above all else it was a learning experience.

The biggest themes that drove my success and defined my business were “support”, “high-quality” and “affordable”. I’ve come to know these as my guiding principles.

My entire business is based on supporting camps with these high-quality, affordable training opportunities. If I didn’t have these guiding principles “That Summer Camp Guy” wouldn’t be the business that it is and I probably wouldn’t have had the year that I did.

I’m finding that success can mean many different things. To me, it means providing a rewarding experience to my clients and the community-at-large while covering my costs. As the business evolves and my needs evolve I’m sure that I’ll measure success differently, but in 2021 I had a successful year because camps were served with rewarding experiences and I was able to cover my costs.

Four Lessons Learned:

  1. Flexibility: Coordinating 15 different camp trainings was difficult, but because I enjoy problem-solving and thinking critically with empathy I found that flexibility was a strength I possess. Every single camp that I served this year threw me some kind of curveball that I needed to work through in order to provide a high-quality experience. Some were coming at me at 100mph and some were a bit more manageable. It would have been easy for me to say, “I’m sorry but I can’t work with this. You need to find a solution in order for me to serve you.” But I never did. Instead I’d find a solution myself (because I know Camp Directors are already over-inundated with challenges) or more often than not we’d work together to troubleshoot an issue and find some acceptable compromise. If I weren’t flexible with communication, facilities, staff and timelines then I wouldn’t have had the success that I had.
  2. Commitment: If I didn’t believe in this business 100% and the ability it has to serve summer camps in a meaningful way it would have died before March. I’m a freethinker and have in the past done several projects that burned out after a few weeks or months because the level of commitment just wasn’t there. I believe 100% in summer camp and my ability to serve the industry. One thing that I really enjoy about this one-man-band business is that I rarely have to compromise on my goals or methods for attaining those goals. I get to set the agenda and how we make that agenda happen. If I don’t believe in something, I don’t have to pursue it and that is a very liberating force. However, it can also be incredibly stressful… so let’s talk about hard-work.
  3. Hard-Work: As I mentioned, this is a one-man-band. If I don’t do the work, the work doesn’t get done. I am the accounting department as well as the marketing, professional development, legal compliance, instructing, quality assurance and travel departments. In 2021 I was learning as I was teaching. What a weird feeling. The work won’t get easier in 2022, but at least I now know that if I put in the hours to make this thing successful then it has a chance of meeting that goal. I don’t always adhere to the adage “work smarter, not harder”. Instead I usually find myself “working harder, smartly”. You pay a price though when you work harder rather than smarter, so let’s talk about self-care and support.
  4. Self-Care and Support: I paid a price this year. My mental and emotional health tanked, hard. But oddly enough that wasn’t entirely because of my business. It’s because I was doing too much with too little. I’m only one man and juggling a new business, traveling, being a loving dad and husband, and the stresses of everyday living in a global health pandemic was just too much and I’m still recovering. Feelings of guilt were probably the #1 deterrent to my well-being. When you’re on the road for about 45 days over the course of 2 months, you feel like a pretty crappy dad and husband. I love leading staff trainings, but man it takes a toll. I’m so thankful that I have a supportive wife, family and close friends. Without their support this wouldn’t be possible. I have a great business partner with Dave Sherry at The Sherry Group LLC, who always takes my call and gives me encouragement. Thank you everyone for keeping me going.

So what’s to come? An even better 2022. I have plans to serve camps once again and hopefully extend my training season to allow for a few more camps. I’m trying to take care of myself and stay positive through it all. I’ve also started 2 part-time jobs and am planning a week of camp with Dave! I survived 2021 and am looking forward to thriving in 2022. Stay tuned and thanks again for your support.

Now booking camps for 2022!

The Small Businesses Serving Small Businesses that Serve

That’s a bit of a mouthful isn’t it? What small businesses serve other small businesses that focus on serving the community? Camp Vendors, that’s who.

Often overlooked as services, rather than people, this small community serving summer camps is a special one. I should know, after all I am one of these services…one of these vendors.

I kind of cringe at that term, “vendor”…I’m no peddler of cheap carnival goods. I’m a legitimate business that offers necessary support to an industry I feel completely dedicated and indebted to. I think this small community of mine can be undervalued and misunderstood so here are a few tips to get the most out of your “camp vendors” in 2022.

  1. Mindset: Just like how a Camp Director’s ultimate mission is to serve the community while also being able to pay the electrical bill every month, so too is the Camp Vendor’s mission. Our bills may be slightly different but our mission remains the same, we aim to serve. We also understand tight budgets, timelines and the bureaucracy often in play when it comes to working with Vendors. Many of us have at one time or another been exactly where you right now (planning for an amazing summer on a shoestring budget). The best advice I can give here is to simply call your vendor, establish a relationship and talk through what options are possible. Just like a parent calling to make sure your camp is legit, safe and aligns with their values, so too should you be engaged in a dialogue with your vendors to make sure they’re legit, safe and align with your values. In my experience, the best outcomes happen when you have built mutual trust and respect through this kind of ongoing dialogue.
  2. Pricing: No Camp Director I know is in the business of camping to become a millionaire. They simply want to serve the community and make a reasonable living doing so. The same sentiment can be said of most Camp Vendors. We want to provide a high quality service to an industry we believe in, while making a reasonable living. We want camps to succeed so that kids can succeed. Yes we have bills to pay (just like you) but in my experience there is usually some level of negotiating possible when working with a Camp Vendor (be it a trainer, consultant or sales person). While we can’t work for free or even at cost (because we also need to be saving for retirement and supporting our families) what we can do is provide options to work within your budget. We can also be upfront about our costs, which is why you’ll always see a price listed with every training service I offer. Just like how every Camp Director salary should be listed with a job opening, so too should Vendor costs be public knowledge.
  3. Expectations: Lack of Communication is probably our number one pet peeve. So here are some good details for both parties to know and converse about regularly: pricing, timeline and contractual obligations. This will vary from vendor to vendor, for example working with a Fundraising Consultant (like The Sherry Group LLC) is going to be different than ordering this year’s staff shirts from a Sales Person (like David Correll). But no matter what, keep a clear line of communication open so that expectations can be shared, discussed and adjusted as needed.
  4. Feedback: Camp Vendors want to improve…just like camps. (Are you seeing a trend develop in this article yet about our similarities? I hope so.) Please let us know how we can best serve you again next year and we’ll be sure to do the same in return. It’s really disappointing to lose a client and not know why or how it could have been prevented. We want our businesses to grow and succeed. So please, be candid and detailed with any feedback you might have (even if it’s positive).

Pro Tip: Ask for vendor testimonials or referrals. Any reputable business should have past clients/customers who can vouch for them. Be weary of any vendor who cannot supply ample testimonials, references or referrals from fellow Camp Directors.

I hope that helps clear up a few things and gets you feeling inspired to work with your amazing Camp Supporters (sounds so much better than “vendor” right?!?). As always I’m here for you and want to chat about improving camp. -Drew

Fundamentals for 2022

Every year around this time we ask ourselves, “what can we do this year that the kids will love? Is there something new, exciting and innovative that we can do or create to get new kids to camp? What adventurous programming is missing from our camp experience?” I love dreaming like this, and as we dream this year of balancing our classic activities with these new trends, please consider the following point of view:

There’s a reason we all do Archery at camp and Arts and Crafts, they’re time tested and approved. But what about them makes them so successful year in and year out? They continue to serve the mission in straightforward ways. Archery builds unique physical skills like aiming and body awareness but more importantly it builds character through persistence, goal setting and accepting feedback. Arts and Crafts kicks ass because it also has character building aspects by way of creating without judgement (and often encouragement from a cool young adult counselor) as well as a resourcefulness to create something from nothing but an idea.

These activities are classic but are they fundamental to the camping experience? I think not. Camping Fundamentals get the very heart of why we are here… activities like archery and camp craft are how we teach those fundamentals.

At the end of the day every experience and activity should serve our mission because summer camp is more than recess, more than play, more than childcare. It’s a chance to use the activities of recess, play and childcare to create meaningful moments and conversations. You can do archery at recess, seriously, some schools do (sign me up) but what is it about summer camp that makes it special. Is it the outdoors? The staff? The kids? It’s how it all comes together to create something bigger than the activity. It’s the idea that we use these activities to create meaning.

These activities create connection. Connection to others, connection to nature and connection to ourselves.

When we focus on fundamentals like connection we create meaningful experiences by way of classic and innovative activities. And that is what I’d advocate for as we plan for 2022. Kids need connection so badly these days, in fact we all need connection badly these days. No matter what activity or program you offer, be it classic or innovative, please focus on the ability it has to make a meaningful difference in a child’s life. Remember your why. Good Luck!

(And when you need new program or activity ideas please reach out. I’d love to tell you all about SPLAT Ball.)

Thank You

I believe that it takes courage to be vulnerable. It’s awkward, it’s difficult, it’s counterintuitive but it is also sometimes necessary. Vulnerability is necessary for growth, for healing, for meaning. Courage isn’t always my strong suit, but I’m glad I had some last week.

I wrote an article that expressed my feelings of utter defeat and exposed my history of depression. I posted it on my facebook page and walked away feeling better for having simply expressed what was in head and heart all week long. A purely cathartic experience. What I received in return has completely blown me away.

Friends, colleagues, family and even some total strangers expressed their support, understanding and love. What a feeling. It seems my vulnerability and the courage that it took to be vulnerable was indeed a good thing. Being authentic, genuine, candid, honest and wholly myself was a good thing.

I’ll try to learn from this experience and remember that I have a network of support and love. Sometimes it takes a brutally honest expression of our feelings to get the help we need. If support is what you’re after, I’d encourage you to step outside your comfort zone, find some courage and be authentic…be vulnerable.

Thank you.

Authentic and Not Enough

This week was rough, like really rough. Probably one of the worst that I’ve had in recent years.

In full transparency and in hopes of diminishing the stigma of mental health, I suffer from depression. I also crave validation and hate feeling inadequate.

As you may know, I’ve recently committed to rejoining the work force as a YMCA Camp Director. It’s my calling, it’s who I am and it’s the kind of work that will allow me to create a meaningful legacy. I have a strong desire to create something that will outlive my few decades on this earth.

Well this week, Monday afternoon at 2:13pm to be exact (and in aisle 3 of the grocery store, right in front of the granola) I got the news that my “dream job” wouldn’t be hiring me. I was devastated but not because it meant I wouldn’t be pursuing a career at this particular camp but because of the months of work, dedication and effort I put into making these people like me and in the end they didn’t like me.

I know, I know, it’s business not personal.

Well that’s bullshit in my line of work. Summer camp is always personal. It shouldn’t be, but it is. And this week I was judged and fell short. I realize I show my inexperience but saying so, but it’s also something I take immense pride in. Camp is personal.

I don’t know where I go from here. Back to square one I suppose, but I’m so dejected, so sad, so utterly fried that I can’t imagine starting the process all over again. I mean this career move has been months in the making and what did I get out of it? A new perspective hopefully. I can use that…..in time. For now, I just feel lost, empty, miserable, alone.

My true “blog” colors are showing here, so thanks for sticking it out. This week’s post isn’t professional, it’s a candid response to a terrible week. I’m sure you can understand. Thanks. -Drew

Now, More Than Ever.

Kids need camp now, more than ever.” How many time have you heard that saying before? Whether this is your first year as a Cabin Counselor or your 30th as an Executive Director, chances are you’ve heard it more than a time or two. And you know what, it’s finally true.

The summer camp experience, as we’ve come to know it, started about 130 years ago and today, just like then, we need it more than ever. The similarities are too many to ignore: a divided country, a revolution of technology and a yearning for our nation’s children to become a better generation than our own. There are differences too of course, but the stage is set now, just as it was then, for a unique enterprise.

This time, we can do even better than before. Unlike the early pioneers of camping who simply walked into the woods with children for a few days of fresh air, we now have the experience, the knowledge and the resources (more people, places and community support) to redefine how children experience themselves, others and the natural world. We have a chance to make a difference….now, just like before….but better.

The well-being of our children is at an all-time low. Just look around and you’ll see that there are few children thriving, most are merely surviving, and struggling with that. They feel disconnected from others, from nature, from themselves. Their physical wellness is poor, their social health is off and their emotional well-being has plummeted. Just ask them, they feel it. We all do.

So what can we do for our nation’s youth?

We can take our children out into nature to experience character building through skills development….now, just like before….but better. We can give them experiences in the outdoors that build respect and admiration for the natural world…now, just like before….but better. We can role model what it means to live a purposeful life, one full of resiliency, positivity and with a community focus….now, just like before….but better.

We know that the work of youth development makes positive impacts. We’ve seen the fruits of this labor blossom every summer for well over a century. Let’s take this moment in time to learn from our past and look forward with renewed determination and a commitment to future inclusion. Camp is for all. Please, this year do all that you can do to get kids to camp as safely as possible.

After all, “they need this now, more than ever“….now, just like before.

*These views are my own, based on my own experiences and knowledge. They do not represent any other person or entity’s point of view that I am associated with.

Thoughts on Safety and Success

My best camp anecdotes come from seemingly insignificant moments: a little comment here, a quick experience there and often tiny moments grab my thoughts for days. This week I had one of those moments with my 3 year old.

The afternoon sun was shining and we were on the front porch just passing the day away. We’ve got a great front porch, with a big swing and this time of year pumpkins and mums. My little guy, Axel, wanted to get up on the swing with me and so he grabbed hold and threw a leg up (imagine a little person trying to climb onto a horse for the first time). My initial reaction was to put my hand behind him just in case he needed an extra boost.

In that moment I thought of camp. I kid you not, that’s how these moments happen. I thought, “what a great analogy for summer camp staff.”

We want them to succeed. We want them to experience new things and grow in confidence, but we also want them to be safe. Where’s the line between growth and safety?

We know that the most impactful moments of these young peoples’ lives is when they step just beyond their comfort zone and experience personal growth. In order to do this they must take healthy risks; the kind of risk where the opportunity for growth is greater than the opportunity for danger. When it comes to mitigating this danger we see good Camp Directors put their hands behind staff just in case they need an extra boost, metaphorically (and sometimes literally….like spotting…spoon hands). 

How do we do this? We hire people interested in healthy risk taking (they understand that camp has opportunities for personal growth), train them to look for these moments (intentionally and organically we put them in team building and personal growth situations) and we are present during the summer to offer support as it’s needed (we get out of the office, offer input in a candid and compassionate way and allow space for staff to hold each other accountable.)

Risk taking is required for personal growth. But it doesn’t have to be unsupported. 

The flip side of all this risk taking is that we as Camp Directors can be too overbearing and fall back to a micromanaging leadership style. This leads to stifled staff growth, trust crumbles, staff retention goes out the window and the entire program suffers. If staff aren’t getting anything more than a paycheck out of this job they’ll go find another one with higher wages. It’s in your best interest to let staff take healthy risks. It’s incredibly difficult to trust 18 year olds with the well-being of hundreds of children, but with some support they’ll do just fine.

Trust me.

My friend, Eddie

On paper, my friend Eddie and I shouldn’t really be friends. He’s a country kid and I grew up on the edge of town. He listens to Tim McGraw, while I still rock out to Taking Back Sunday. He drives a tractor and likes red meat. I prefer my bike and have flirted with vegetarianism for the last 20 years. And you might understand that when I say we probably don’t have much in common when it comes to red and blue, we really don’t have much in common. Yet we’re friends. Close friends. I could call Eddie right now and he’d be here if I needed him and I’d do the same for him. Why? Because of camp.

In 2006 when I first signed on to be a camp counselor at the local 4-H camp (because I didn’t want to work another summer in fast food), Eddie was already there. In fact he was the leader of the summer staff. One of only several returning staff, he was big, boisterous and in many other ways intimidating to a new recruit like myself.

We started off on completely different wavelengths. He was an orange. I was a blue. He was extroverted. I was introverted. He was an agriculture and education major at Iowa State. I was studying art at Iowa. Opposites in almost every sense of the word. Yet during our 2 weeks of training, the ideas of mission, community and empowerment were instilled in us daily and we began to find common ground. Then when the kids arrived something special happened.

At summer camp you’re only as good as your effort day in and day out. There you’re not judged on your talents or ability, you’re judged on your willingness to do what you can for the kids every hour of every day. Unlike many workplaces that I know of, at summer camp if your attitude is right you’ll earn respect. Deadlines, quotas and sales aren’t the measure by which camp counselors are judged. What matters is that you show up every day determined to make a positive difference in your kids’ lives. And that is where Eddie and I shined.

That summer we earned each other’s respect out of sheer grit. It was hot, it was tiresome, it was demanding and it was the best summer of my life. Eddie and I grew forever connected because of the experiences and emotions we shared for those 3 months. We laughed, we cried, we howled at the moon, and we screamed with joy…all for the kids. Because of those 3 months I now have a lifelong friend in Eddie. We don’t talk as much as we used to, life seems to be busier these days with family, jobs and distance, but even now as I write this I feel a connection to Eddie because of camp.

So my advice to you fellow Camp Directors: hire people from different backgrounds, unify them around the meaning of the job and let summer camp work its magic…not just for the kids but also for the staff.