As many camps prepare for the 2021 summer we can take note of those who operated successfully, if not uniquely, last year. We invited our ACA Illinois member Walcamp Outdoor Ministries to share their reflections from running day camp programs in the time of COVID-19, what lessons they learned, and advice they have for others in the camp community.
Tell us a little about your camp!
Walcamp is a Christian camp in northern Illinois that provides opportunities for children ages 5-17 and adults with special needs to explore nature and to grow physically, mentally, socially and spiritually. This is done through year round programs that include summer day camp and overnight options, multi-day school field trips for outdoor education, and space for groups to run retreats and events.
What surprised you most about running camp during the pandemic in 2020?
Reading through the health guidelines provided by the CDC last summer, our state health department, and the ACA field guide, I was most surprised by how many of the precautions being asked of us were already in place. Because of the high standards of ACA Accreditation, I would often read something and think: “We are already doing that, we just have to do it more often now.”
I was also surprised by our team and our guests. Everyone took the changes in stride, from extra cleaning duties to holding each other accountable to taking daily temperatures and maintaining safe distances in our groups. Our parents and campers adapted quickly as well, and met our new expectations with only a few questions, eager for the children to get outside and experience camp safely.
What are some programming alterations you had to make?
Keeping cabin areas clear of clutter has been an annual struggle for us. Last year, we provided our counselors and each camp group with “Loot Boxes” - large plastic bins with a lid to store personal belongings, sports equipment, and art supplies. We also required that parents bring a Loot Box for each of their children. The boxes are dropped off on Day One each week, and returned on the child’s last day of camp each week. This provides a consistent place for them to keep all their belongings contained - regardless of their organizational skills - while also giving the caregiver the opportunity to restock and rewash the camper’s belongings each weekend. Surprisingly, our Lost and Found last summer was down from 20 or more items in a week to 2 items over the course of four weeks. This may be an adaptation we hold onto for future summers.
To make the extra cleaning fun, our Director purchased several backpack lawn sprayers to fill with disinfectant. Several times a day our support staff (counselors not assigned to a camp group) competed for the privilege of “ghost-busting” our dining hall, restrooms and common areas. It greatly sped up the cleaning process without sacrificing thoroughness, and also turned a tedious process into a game.
The hardest adaptation was to restrict campers and team members to specific pods. Under normal conditions, I try to separate groups by ages and to assign our high school volunteers to different groups than their siblings. This year we are keeping family members together, which caused some camper-volunteer sibling rivalry at first and made choosing age-appropriate activities harder four our team; last week we had a group of 10-14 year olds while the one five-year old sibling tried to keep up. We have seen this age gap with groups of homeschool students during the school year, so we approached this challenge with a similar mentality. As the weeks went by, we saw older campers step-up to assist the younger ones, and siblings treating one another with some of the respect they give other campers. It was a process, and a great learning opportunity for the children.
What were you most nervous about when it came to running camp last summer?
I was most nervous working through our worst-case scenarios. Our number one goal is the safety of our leaders and campers, and it was hard to brainstorm through each possibility without seeing the specific faces of campers that might be affected by a given situation or a new policy. I was also nervous at the end when we put our plans into action. What would parents-caregivers think? Were the changes too strict or too lenient? The hardest part of the process was choosing the lines for which demographics we could serve and which ones had needs beyond the services we can provide last year.
What questions did you get from parents when you made the decision to run last year?
The first question every parent asks is, “How will our team keep their child safe”. I expected more questions on specific guidelines or why a specific restriction was put in place. Instead, once the safety question was answered, our most common questions related to scheduling or to payments. We quickly added some flexibility to both answers, allowing campers to attend for two days consistently rather than a full consecutive week, or working out payment plans to help struggling families, in order to provide their children with the benefits of camp.
With everything that happened last summer, the question I was asked the most was, “When will we be re-opening our overnight camp programs?” Our day camp programs have always supplemented our larger summer sleep-away camp program, and many parents expressed their trust that we could keep their children safe - even when we did not know whether or not we could run an overnight program, and even though we had not published any guidelines for how any program changes would affect their experience if we were able run it.
With all the questions we have been asked, the one question that has not been asked is whether or not we can keep our campers safe. We are asked “how” we will keep them safe, not “if” we are able to keep them safe. It is humbling to see the trust that our parents place in us, our team members and our camp.
how did the communication of new policies & procedures go over
with campers, parents, and staff?
Overall, our parents and team members were understanding of the changes made. Once we decided on the new procedures we had to enforce, I worked with our director to determine how to best present them. We wrote things in a positive light whenever possible, using the “cannots” and restrictions only when we could not find a better way to say it. We included other team members when possible to encourage buy-in, especially when they were the ones asked to follow the new rules. In return, we were careful to maintain a positive approach when someone forgot to do something or made a mistake. There were a lot of changes last year, and while enforcing them I tried to keep the approach of a coach teaching the best practices for success, rather than a supervisor tearing them down for every infraction. I was also quick to self-correct my own mistakes publicly to show that I was learning the new rules with them, and that I was taking the situation as seriously as we asked them to take it.
What has been the response from the community regarding running programs?
The response in our area has been overwhelmingly positive. Parents are grateful for the chance to give their campers this experience away from home, a safe place for them to interact with other children again face-to-face instead of over video chat. To my knowledge we have only received one hostile comment; it was related to the first announcement that our day camp was open, a claim that we were being irresponsible from someone who had never visited the camp and who did not take the time to check our website to see all the extra safety precautions we put in place. More often we receive comments of how much this program benefited the children and helped the parents at a time when no other day camp options were available.
how have staff roles changed?
The biggest change was that our counselors are in the same group, with the same campers, every week. I typically rotate team members in and out of the various groups, allowing each an equal turn with the campers, to balance the weeks of serving on “support staff” and to build team dynamics by serving with new team members. Last year we had regular groups, assigned partners, and two team members “floating” on support staff without groups of their own, because someone had to do the extra cleaning and keep our groups supplied with water and the other necessities the groups used to get on their own from a common location.
My role has changed, too. I handed off more responsibility to our summer leaders because my days are filled with adapting to communicating with parents, keeping current with changing guidelines, and discussing various adaptations as new situations arise. I often found myself saying, “We did not consider that scenario yet,” and then staring into space for a moment to run it through our lists of guidelines and recommendations before offering possible solutions.
How have the children adapted to new camp procedures?
The children adapted well to the new changes. The younger ones require additional reminders throughout the day to keep their distance or to wear their masks when they move indoors. They understand the changes least of all, but as a whole everyone has accepted that this is what we have to do in order to enjoy camp, and they were quick to add the changes into their routines.
What was the most rewarding part of running camp in 2020?
For me, the most rewarding parts of opening our day camp was seeing the excitement of our campers at the opportunity to play outside again. It was watching a team member cheerfully ask what else needs to be done after four weeks without their own campers, simply because they are able to be at camp and to serve. It was the joy in a parent’s eyes listening to their child’s stories of what they did each day. It was seeing campers return each week and watching them grow physically, mentally, spiritually and socially as they spend time with their friends in nature.
What advice do you have for folks preparing to run camp in 2021?
My advice for running programs this summer is to stay flexible and to take things one step at a time. As plans change - sometimes weekly or daily- do not regret the things you cannot do this year or the need to run things differently. Focus on what you can do within the safety guidelines. Take this chance to seek out new opportunities to grow and to meet the needs of your campers, and do not hurry to bring back the favorite traditions and activities you have postponed. Start with what you can do, look out for the safety of your campers, and find new ways to serve them. Include your summer staff in the procedure making. I worked with our director to develop new policies, but I also worked with our team members - our leadership team, the summer counselors, cooks, cleaning teams, office and maintenance staff - to find the best way to carry out those policies. We said they have to clean X times a day, but they decided the best times each day to do that.
We broke our program to its core ideals: 1) the campers are safe, 2) the campers are outside whenever possible, and 3) the campers’ activities have a purpose and are not just time fillers. I then set the boundaries for what makes a game or activity safe or unsafe and gave our team members the freedom to decide which ones they would lead and how to adapt their activities to fit within those guidelines. As we say on the challenge course: “Methods are many, principles are few. Methods often change but principles seldom do.”
While it might be hard to believe right now, there will be time to bring back your camp favorites once you know it can be done without risk to your campers or team members. You are important to your campers and their families. This season will pass, and you will be stronger when you reach the other side.
Thank you to Walcamp Outdoor Ministries for sharing their reflections about running programs during COVID-19 to our camp community. If you are looking to hear from camps running programs and ask questions, get ideas, work out something you're stuck on we invite email Kim at firstname.lastname@example.org. We continually are creating innovative programs and our Shared Interest Group has a variety of topics and communities of people! Learn more at our Upcoming Events & Trainings here.