The journey of a camp professional.
Some people have their whole lives mapped out ahead of them. Others float through life, drifting from job to job without clear direction. This article is for a third kind of person--the one who knows where they're going but not how to get there. This is a "how-to guide" on becoming a full-time, year-round camp professional. If you already are one, share it with a younger version of yourself. With four summers of camp experience, eight semesters of after-school work with youth, and a degree in parks and recreation, the goal of becoming a camp professional was in my sights. But how to get there? And what obstacles were in my way? If being a camp professional is your dream, here's the map you'll need, which I discovered on a long journey.
Testing the Waters
Before you get your feet wet, you'll want to ask yourself a few questions:
* Have I really researched what it means to be a camp professional? A good way to learn more is to visit the American Camp Association's (ACA) Web site, www.ACAcamps.org, and browse through the message boards to see what camp professionals are writing about.
* Am I willing to stick with it when it gets tough? Talk with other camp professionals about the struggles they face: personnel issues, budget pressures, and facility management just to name a few.
* Do I really want to be busy all summer every summer? What about my social life? What about family vacations?
Summer at camp can seem like a quick ride down the rapids. The hustle and bustle of six, eight, or even twelve weeks can be adventurous. Your companions can be great friends who help you navigate your personal and professional rapids. However, working at camp year-round is quite different. When you work at camp year-round, you'll generally be working with a smaller staff, and there may be more opportunity for conflict and higher expectations for creativity. You'll definitely find that year-round camp jobs are not as intense as a summer at camp. Just like white-water rafting, there are rapids (like the first disagreement with your boss) and flat water sections (which can sometimes be long or boring). When faced with rapids, will you paddle hard and guide yourself through them? In flat water, will you stay the course?
Preparing for the Trip
So, you've decided that camp is for you. What's next? Education. Just like having a map of the river that you plan to raft down, education is key. A great place to start is the Camp Knowledge Center on the ACA's Web site. There are links to universities that offer degrees in camp administration, or you may want to research other related degrees like parks and recreation, social work, or environmental education. Just a few courses in child psychology, education, or even business administration can be useful in a camp career.
If you are applying for a camp director position in someone else's camp, you'll probably need at least a bachelor's degree, though some positions will require an advanced degree in a specific area. If you don't have a degree, don't worry; some camps may not require a degree for a director's position, and many camps will be looking for other positions that don't need a college education, just someone with a desire to keep learning. You are your most valuable asset; make a continual investment in yourself and in gaining knowledge!
Keep in mind that ACA also offers several courses for people just like you. For future camp directors, you might want to check out the New Director Orientation or the Basic Camp Director Course--each gives an overview of the basic knowledge areas needed to operate a camp. In addition, each ACA local office offers workshops and trainings that focus on various core areas essential to professional development, plus stuff you might just want to know--how to teach archery or horseback riding for example. These certifications and courses will help build your resume and may give you the edge when seeking a camp job.
Training for the Olympics
Now that you've completed your advanced degree in camp administration, it will be easy to get the job of your dreams, right? Well, maybe not. Formal education may not be enough. Beyond learning the map of what you need to know, you'll find it helpful to take a few test runs down the river.
Look for jobs that will help build your resume. You could work at an after-school program, a local park or recreation center, a nearby Boys/Girls Club, or YMCA. Or, you could become a life guard at the local pool, tutor at an elementary school, babysit your neighbor's twins, coach a little league team, volunteer at the library, or work with a church youth group. Any experience working with children (or the clientele of your dream camp) is an asset. Plus, this experience will help you determine your areas of strength and weakness as well as what you like and don't like to do.
The best experience for working at camp is, of course, working at a camp. If you have found a camp that "fits" you--one that you love--return every summer. It may be tempting to be a group counselor for the third year in a row, especially when you're good at it, but try to get as much diverse experience as possible. Work with a different age group or teach in a new activity area. Try out some supervisor roles; be bold and go for the head counselor position, activity director, or any variety of more "responsible" roles. Once you have tried everything, don't be afraid to try another camp; every camp will offer new "rapids" to navigate.
Some camps may also let you volunteer (or work part-time) during their off-season. In the fall, they may need help inventorying supplies and equipment or winterizing camp. Come spring, they may need help sorting camper applications, ordering camp supplies, or folding mailings for campers and staff. And some camps focus their off-season efforts on environmental education, team building, leadership workshops, and teaching other life skills through the camp experience. Practice with the administrative side of camp is invaluable experience.
Choosing Your Route (The Right Camp)
When navigating the river of your career, you'll need to look ahead, to study visible obstacles and predict hidden ones. To determine your best route, you'll want to decide what camp (or kind of camp) is the best fit for you. These questions will help you pinpoint differences that may be important to you:
* Do you prefer day or overnight camp? One has a more hectic pace with more time off; one has a leisurely pace (boring to some) that potentially allows for greater connection with the campers.
* How long do the campers stay? Some people want to reach as many campers as possible, while others believe that a certain amount of time is needed to truly impact campers.
* Who owns the camp? Nonprofit, agency, religious, privately-owned, and family-owned camps all have their own feel. Some are mom-and-pop type businesses while others are very bureaucratic.
* What is the organization's mission and how is it implemented through-out camp? Some camps offer a spiritual connection through nature (do they mean rustic facilities and pit toilets?) or a comfortable community with modern facilities (do they mean air conditioning in the cabins)--know what you are and are not okay with. Read the camp's Web site, view pictures in their brochure, speak with the camp director or human resources manager--do you feel an emotional connection? Do the philosophy, culture, and values resonate with you? Can you picture yourself working there and recruiting campers and staff to attend?
* Who attends the camp (population served)? There are camps that work specifically with children who have cancer or diabetes, with children who live in the inner city, with children who are members of the Boy Scouts of America or Girl Scouts of the USA or a certain religion, and there are those that work with a more general population. There are even camps where adults or whole families can go.
* Where is the camp located? Some camps may have different locations for their summer and winter offices. Likewise, some camps may require that you live on camp property for some or all of the year. Beyond your willingness to change location from season to season, you also need to decide if you are willing to permanently relocate to another city or state. Are you willing to leave family and friends?
* What kinds of activities does the camp have? There are camps that specialize in the performing arts, in a specific sport, in computer or outdoor skills, and there are camps that take a more general outlook and do a little of everything. Is there something the camp must have for you to consider working there?
* What type(s) of programs does the camp offer? Some camps offer summer-only programs while others offer environmental education; team-building; weekend programs for senior citizens; overnight trips (camp on the road); corporate retreats; or after-school programming. What do you really want to plan and run?
* How much room is there for personal/professional growth? Smaller organizations may not have a position beyond an entry-level administrator. Others may be family affairs where a child is being groomed for ultimate leadership. Are you willing to take a job where there is no room for advancement?
Taking the Plunge
Once you've prepared for the journey of being a camp professional, it's time to launch your career. To find camps that are looking for year-round staff, talk to your local ACA executive director or visit www.ACAcamps.org/jobs (where, for starters, you can sign up to receive an e-mailed list of available year-round jobs at camp or browse job opportunities and post your resume on Summer Jobs at Camp ACA's online job center). Research prospective camps, both on the Internet and by talking to the camp director. Visit interesting camps during the summer or ask to receive their video, and speak with former staff about what it is really like to work there.
If the camp you absolutely love is not hiring, ask to fill out an application and leave your resume "on file" for when a position becomes available. Then call back every once in a while to see if they have openings.
When a camp requests an interview, be thorough. Be sure you know what the camp is about--their clientele, philosophy, and culture. Know why you want to work there and what benefit you will provide. Brag (subtlely) about your strengths and admit your areas of improvement (give specifics on what you're doing to better yourself in those areas). Don't expect an offer right then and there, and be sure to follow up with a thank-you call or note. You may need to speak with a few key employees during several meetings or even initiate a conference call before an offer is made to you.
Be patient (this might be one of those flat-water sections of the river we talked about earlier). The job hunt can be frustrating. Some camps only hire from within, and some are only willing to consider you year-round after a trial summer. Keep your spirits up by talking with friends, continuing your work with children in other venues, and staying focused on finding the perfect job. Remember, you're not the only one going through this. A great resource of support and inspiration is the ACA's Young Professionals group. You can learn more about them online at ACAcamps.org/youngpros or by e-mailing them your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Navigating Your Course
Once you've been hired, the really exciting work begins--all the secret, behind-the-scenes things you've been imagining! Of course, you might find that your camp is not the perfect fit you had imagined. It's alright to change camps; if you're not happy where you are, you're not going to do your best job and that doesn't just affect you--it also affects how your camp runs.
Or, you might feel that the cycles of year-round camp become monotonous. Keep yourself challenged and interested by taking on new projects, developing new programs, helping with the standards review, and setting yearly professional development goals--you might become a Standards Visitor, present a topic at a local or national conference, write an article for Camping Magazine or CAMP or become a board member for a local camp or even your local ACA office.
Involvement in your local ACA office or with ACA's Young Professionals can also provide connections to other professionals, people who can mentor your professional growth, who can act as your sounding board, who can provide support during particularly difficult "rapids," or even who can inform you of your ideal camp job opening. There are many professionals out there that can help you during your journey down the river.
A member of American Camp Association's (ACA) Young Professionals, Mike Brannan has worked with youth for fifteen years and has been in the field of camp for twelve years. He is currently the director at the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, Caruth Camp, a year-round camp that provides leadership programs to school districts and offers summer camp programs. Brannan is an ACA standards visitor, and he and his wife are expecting their first child in May.
Originally published in the 2006 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.
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|Date:||May 1, 2006|
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