In recent months, I've spoken to over 30 camp directors about various subjects. This is just one of several blog posts I'll be writing about what we have discussed.
When asked how they balance everything they do to make their camps run smoothly, many were able to give succinct and practical answers. But even some of these directors, and many others, admitted that they’re often overwhelmed, have poor work-life balance, and are still in trial-and-error phases or that they don’t quite know how they’re able to do it all. There are countless demands on directors from campers, staff, camper families, and regulatory agencies. Still, they manage to figure it out. Liz Stevens, Director of Camp Walden (MI), summed up the feelings of many when she said: "I am not going to pretend that the longer I'm in this job, the easier it gets."
"I am not going to pretend that the longer I'm in this job, the easier it gets."
Yet, through all the difficulties, there was near universal sentiment that camp is more important than it has ever been.
Rachel Chadwin, who directs Camp Mah-Kee-Nac (MA) along with her husband Jamie, said that directing camp is “nowhere near as simple as is used to be. We have adapted, but with intention and purpose...[it is] important to stay true to values, culture, and traditions, while modernizing as the years go on.”
Jared Gelb, Director of Camp Ramaquois (NY) and Andy Pritikin, Director of Liberty Lake Day Camp (NJ), told me about the incredible professional and personal time investment it takes to keep their camps going strong, which I myself know well as a former full-time director. Steve Purdum, Director of Camp Mishawaka (MN), agreed, recounting a moment a few years ago when Bob Ditter stirred up emotion in a room full of directors when he mentioned the tremendous personal cost that directing camp can sometimes have.
In my interviews, several directors expressed concern for the future and wondered: who will be able to do these director jobs when we’re not? Will there be a next generation that is equipped for this lifestyle?
The More Brains, the Better
In order to keep up with the increasing demands on directorship, many camps have grown the size of their leadership teams, both year-round and seasonally. Dana Kite, Director of Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods Camps (MI), found great value in “surrounding myself with really competent people who share the vision and passion." Mitch Reiter, Director of Camp Towanda (PA) and Drew Bitterman, Director of Camp Watitoh (MA), echoed this sentiment by advising directors to hire strong leadership teams. Dave Devey, who began as a camper at Falcon Camp (OH) and has now been the director for 40 years, said: “Over the years it's changed from me doing everything - recruiting to maintenance to books - to assembling a comfortable team. I've got a tremendous team, with increased responsibilities on everyone. I just let them do their things. I couldn't possibly do all the things I did years ago by myself because everything is more complicated.”
In a similar vein, Andy Pritikin remarked that it’s harder to be hands-on day-to-day because there are so many more pieces of camp directing now, one example for him being an increase in regulations. Both Pritikin and Cassie and Justin Mayer, Directors of Camp Timber Lake West (NY), have increased their summer leadership that oversee camper groups so that there are more layers of support for the staff. Meaghan Baumgartner, Executive Director of Camp Nor’wester (WA), agrees that layers of staff support are necessary to making a camp run smoothly because directors can’t go it alone. “You have to show up and take care of yourself,” she said.
Pritikin thinks that naturally, many camp directors try to do it all and aren’t particularly good at delegating. But we all know that delegating is necessary. Part of a functional camp leadership team means capitalizing on people’s strengths. At Maine Teen Camp, Director Matt Pines told me, “Different people have different areas they're in charge of…[it’s about] finding the right people who can take a particular chunk and trust that it’s getting done.”
Some, like Pritikin, Director Steven Bernstein of Camp North Star (ME), and Executive Director Terrie Campbell of Camp Howe (MA) also recommend outsourcing both smaller and bigger jobs to people who can help in broader or more specific areas, such as consultants, fractional CFOs, those available through short-term project apps like Fiverr and UpWork, and even artificial intelligence in some cases.
Remembering The “Why”
I often hear from fellow parents who struggle to give their kids enough independence, but not too much that it turns very risky; to teach the value of face-to-face friendships; to help their children use their imaginations to make their own fun instead of resorting to electronics when bored; to spend time outside and get dirty; to learn how to take care of themselves. I find myself saying “send them to camp” more times than I can count. Mitch Reiter, Director of Camp Towanda (PA) put it this way: “For traditional camping, value is increasing as the world becomes crazier and more fast-paced. This is the last place where kids are allowed to be kids. They’re not worrying about seeking parental approval, and they’re off of electronics.”
“For traditional camping, value is increasing as the world becomes crazier and more fast-paced. This is the last place where kids are allowed to be kids."
Paul Isserles, Director of Eisner Camp (MA), shared a key component of what makes it all work for him: “I always try to make sure I have fun every day with campers and staff. I push the director team to get out and about and see the fun of camp. I love getting to know campers and staff and finding small opportunities to play and get into real camp life. Have the campers have that relationship with me [is important] in the fun times as well as the challenging times." And, he reminds directors, "Make sure to take a rest, take a break - if you can't take care of yourself, you can't be there to take care of everyone else.”
Jared Gelb, Director of Camp Ramaquois (NY), notes that he’s seen an increase in families where the parents did not necessarily grow up at camp, so he seeks to educate them on why the investment of camp is so important.
Dave Devey, Director of Falcon Camp (OH), wants everyone to know the importance of camp. “[We need to] push the idea, not just to parents, but to universities and in the educational world, on the value of what we do,” he said. “We provide constant growth opportunities. We do it better than anyone…we need to educate everyone as to this value…and to let people know that there are camps for everybody.”
“I try to believe that everything is possible; I come from optimistic perspective which helps me get through the hard times,” said John Quinlivan, Executive Director of Camp Stella Maris (NY). Perhaps the most important skillset of a camp director is one of problem-solving. As times change and demands increase, camp directors will continue to rely on Quinlivan's go-to phrase: "We can figure this out."
My next blog post will focus on what year-round leadership teams look like for 200 different camps.