"Rethinking Service," Camp Business

By Nicki Fleischner

“One, two, three, GO!”

The whistle blew and the first round of campers was off. Half-walking, half-
running, they carefully balanced a Ping-Pong ball atop a paddle in their hands, eyes glued down in concentration. From the sidelines teammates cheered.

“Faster!” “Almost there!”

Members of the “Yellow Fish” jumped up and down. The “Green Snakes” crouched in nervous excitement. The Ping-Pong Relay was a familiar Color War event for the Camp Scatico Counselors in Training (CITs). Summer after summer, the group of boys and girls had participated in countless Color War relays and races, soccer matches, and softball games. Like campers throughout the United States, they shared the unique bond of growing up while spending seven weeks each summer at Scatico, a traditional sleep-away camp in upstate New York. Color War was a sacred tradition, an intense highlight at the end of each summer.

But this time, despite the familiar cheers and events, excitement, and competition, Color War was a little different. Instead of participating, the CITs were leading. And they weren’t at Camp Scatico in Elizaville, N.Y. They were at an elementary school in the Dominican Republic.

Shouts of Spanish were heard among the English cheers as one team took the lead.

“¡Corre! ¡Corre!” “¡Más rápido!”

The Dominican campers had never experienced a summer camp, let alone Color War or a Ping-Pong Relay, but their enthusiasm was palpable. Throughout the day, as the CITs introduced new games, the campers quickly caught on, adding their own strategies, cheers, and jokes.

There’s nothing more universal than the freedom and joy of playing, nothing more unifying than the magic of camp.

A Camp Connection

This past summer, I led 23 CITs, former campers who had just finished their sophomore year of high school, on a 10-day service trip to the Dominican Republic. It was a radical departure from Scatico’s traditional CIT summer experience, but one that enhanced it tremendously. While in the Dominican Republic, the CITs led a day camp for over 60 kids from an underserved community. From craft projects to sports, informal games in English and, of course, Color War, the CITs shared an abundance of camp spirit. Despite limited resources and a language barrier, they established a connection like only camp can, and in only one week converted a Dominican school into a spectacular summer camp.

Besides being a unique experience for the Dominican campers, the camp was an incredible learning and training opportunity for the CITs. The power and importance of volunteer experiences is only growing.

The world has progressed past the one-sided view that service is only about helping others, and has evolved to an understanding that volunteer work is also about personal development and growth. This is particularly true for young adults. From high schools requiring students to complete a certain number of community-service hours to the growing popularity of programs that incorporate international service, volunteer work has become an increasingly accessible and vital part of growing up. 

And it’s time summer camps got on board, especially considering that summer is when teens are most likely to seek out a service experience.

Camps are uniquely positioned to go beyond the typical soup kitchen or garbage pick-up approach and incorporate volunteer experiences in more meaningful ways. It’s what I call the “exporting camp” model, where, by bringing the traditions, spirit, and activities of camp to children who are unable to attend otherwise, it’s possible to make a tangible impact on both the CITs and the children they work with.

Whether your camp chooses to travel to another country, or to partner with a local day care, there are many creative ways for CITs to be involved in an “exporting camp” experience. 

Make It Work

Step 1: Finding the right match.

Scatico was able to help lead a Dominican day camp because the camp partnered with an organization on the ground: the DREAM Project (dominicandream.org). DREAM is a Dominican-based NGO that works with local communities year-round and is experienced in hosting American service groups.

This type of support is crucial when working with a new group of kids or in an unfamiliar environment.Whether your camp decides to stay local or travel will largely depend on the available budget and time frame, but in either scenario, finding a non-profit organization or school whose work you know, admire, and trust is key.

Reach out to members of your own camp community to see what connections to children-centered organizations already exist. It’s a great jumping-off point.

Step 2: Planning ahead.

As many camp insiders can attest, introducing new programming at a traditional camp is difficult. Here are some tips to prepare your camp community for its own service experience:

  • Keep families in the loop. Scatico sent an email with a proposed itinerary in October, and organized an in-person meeting to discuss the trip in early winter. Try to strike a balance between the micrologistics and the big, impactful picture to get people both comfortable and pumped!
  • Incorporate a summer orientation. Once the CITs were at camp, we held five pre-departure trip meetings. Some topics to consider:

1. Planning the day-camp schedule. Having as much of the programming developed by the CITs was important in having them feel invested and excited.

2. Managing expectations. Depending on where you choose to work, it’s important that CITs understand what the meals, bathrooms, weather, and general schedule are going to look like.

3. Emphasizing cultural sensitivity. You want CITs to be polite guests!

4. Getting them thinking about service in the right way. From Googling, you will find plenty of articles with a critical view of “voluntourism” (volunteer tourism), where young Americans sweep in to “save” the developing world, and take a lot of Facebook photos in the process. This is exactly what we wanted to avoid. 

Step 3: Bringing the camp magic. Though camp magic may seem to happen on its own, we found that these strategies enhanced the CITs’ performances.

  • Rotate stations. Having campers and CITs rotate between stations helpsnavoid monotony and restlessness. We had crafts, sports, and English games, but practically anything could work.
  • Divide CITs into groups. Dividing the group of CITs and giving them semi-defined roles allows the more introverted ones to shine. For each day of camp, we switched which CITS worked together and which group of campers they led.
  • Stay organized. We reviewed a printed schedule of groups and planned activities each morning at breakfast. When CITs knew what was scheduled, they felt more empowered to lead.
  • Allow time for feedback. Each day brought unique challenges—one kid didn’t want to participate, the camp ran out of beads for friendship bracelets, it was too hot for kickball—but that’s all part of camp. Give CITs time to voice what worked and what didn’t at the end of each day. There’s always a way to fine-tune.
  • Let them do their thing. The bottom line is that camp people are great with kids, which is why using an “exporting camp” model makes sense, rather than building a school (how many average 16-year-olds are amazing at construction?). Our CITs may have been in an unfamiliar environment, but they were in their element, and it showed. Camp’s best moments will come when CITs are allowed to step up and do their thing.
  • Share and reflect. We decided to keep a blog (citdream.wordpress.com) and posted every day of our trip. It allowed time for personal reflection, as well as a chance to share the experience with the Scatico family.

Spreading The Magic

Now, months after the first round of Color War victories, goodbye tears, first-time bachata dances, and games of SPUD, a new group of 32 Scatico CITs is already signed up. Come July, they will head to the same elementary school to work with a new set of first-time Dominican campers.

There’s no limit to how far the camp magic can spread. One CIT boy wrote on his blog last year: “Even across an ocean, camp brings people together.”

If your camp is interested in incorporating a service component and you need any further advice, please do not hesitate to reach out! 

This article originally appeared in Camp Business in May 2016.