Year Round Work at a Summer Camp Office

“So what do you do the rest of the year?”  This is the question I am most often asked when I tell people that I am a Rabbi/educator who works as a camp director.  In most people’s eyes, camp is an eight week job.  For the other 10 months, I think that they imagine year round camp staffget to kick back by the pool for hours every day.

While I wish that this was the case on some days, in reality we accomplish most camp planning during the off‑season.  A fellow director compared his job to that of a train engineer.  When the train is in the yard, mechanics can make major changes to the train, replacing wheels, cars, paint or anything else needed for the train to make a successful journey.  However, once the train leaves the station the only thing a mechanic can do is make minor adjustments and hope to make it home safely at the end of the day.  As a camp director, our “yard” is the off season.  Once the summer begins, it will be hard to make any more major changes in the camp program until September.

So here are a few of the major issues we (Dan, Douglas, Elyssa and I) are working on at the moment:

1. Recruiting:  We are already 75% towards our camper goal for 2011.  We anticipate 200 campers coming through our doors, and have over 150 campers registered to date.  Typically we speak with about 4-5 parents/potential campers for every camper who registers.  We love talking about camp and spend countless hours discussing our program by phone, email and in person.  At the end of the day, we want every Jewish child to go to the Jewish camp that is best for them and often refer campers elsewhere if Ramah Outdoor Adventure is not the correct fit.  Our recently launched JOLI program (Jewish Outdoor Leadership Institute) has garnered a lot of interest amongst high school juniors and seniors.  We only have nine more spaces available for this summer, and we hope to expand this program in future years.   While there are some campers for whom our camp is a natural fit, there are many others who have lots of questions or concerns that need to be addressed before they (or we) feel comfortable with them attending.

2. Safety & Logistics:  It is hard to understate the importance of these issues when it comes to running camp.  Hiring bus companies for driving, coordinating emergency plans with the sheriff’s office, obtaining permits for all backcountry hikes with the park service, and making sure we have the funds available to pay our obligations are just a few of the logistical challenges with which we deal regularly.  And our logistical needs are always changing, requiring regular review:  We need more or fewer buses, suppliers stop offering their product and we must source a replacement, government regulations change, information we used previously no longer apply (e.g. we recently published a list of flights we will meet at the airport only to discover that Southwest Airlines has changed their schedule since we created the list!).  We strive to accomplish all of this behind the scenes, so our campers and their families see and benefit from a seamless operation.

3. Staffing:  The single most important part of running a successful summer camp is hiring the right group to staff it.  Many camps have a single HR person who spends the entire year hiring staff.  At Ramah Outdoor Adventure it is one of many tasks primarily assigned to the director.  I speak with numerous individuals each week about working at camp.  Some are invited to interview in person or via Skype, others are deemed not appropriate for camp even before the interview.   We check at least three references for each staff member and run criminal background checks too.  Last summer’s program staff was so incredible that I asked back 100% of them.  My hope is that in future years we will have as good a track record when it comes to hiring staff.  I can assure you that, thus far, I am certain the staff I have hired will match or even surpass our 2010 cohort.

4. Program:  Perhaps one of the best parts of working at a camp in the off season is the program planning opportunities we have before campers arrive.  We spend a portion of each week planning the general schedule as well as specific programs.  Dan recently planned a fun and educational trivia activity that we will use for one night of staff week and with our older campers during the summer.  Elyssa is beginning to work on the Yom Sport program this week and I am busy designing our staff week programming.  In addition, I am working with our educational director Megan and food educator Yael to ensure that all aspects of our summer program fit into the broader educational vision of camp.   While it might seem that the “magic” of camp happens spontaneously over summer, in fact it results from months of intentional planning in the off season.

So you see we are not sitting by a pool sipping mixed drinks with umbrellas.  Instead we spend our days preparing for what should be an unbelievable second summer of Ramah Outdoor Adventure!  Over the coming weeks we will write in more detail about some of the programs we are planning for summer 2011.

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