Over the years, we have come to understand an important reality – the first year of camp is by far the hardest for campers and parents alike.

Of course, this makes sense.  Returning campers know what to expect.  Parents of returning campers have seen their children return from camp with more confidence and competence.  They also know that they (the parents) can survive the separation.

But the new families have not necessarily had to chance to build confidence in us yet.  Every camper that experiences homesickness feels like he or she is the only person to have ever had the experience.  Certainly, it is likely the first time he or she has been homesick.  For you first-time parents, we have not yet won your trust. This may be the first time your child has been away from home for any extended period of time.

In short, the first summer has challenges unique to it.

We understand how hard this can be. When Susie Ma’am and I sent our sons and daughters out of state to camp, we too worried about them.

[Note – let me share one of my favorite Susie Ma’am stories.  When our youngest went to camp in North Carolina, Susie looked at the photos every day. For the first three days, she saw nothing.  She began to worry. I would not say “panic”, but let’s call it “highly focused and concerned”.  On the fourth day, she saw one picture, but Virginia looked a little sad. Susie’s concern was amping up. On the following day, she saw Virginia smiling.  Even better, she was being hugged by another girl!  “Hooray”, she thought, “Virginia has a friend!”  Excitedly, she looked through the rest of the photos. She saw no more of Virginia, but she DID see Virginia’s hugger.  In several pictures, the same girl was smiling – and hugging – different girls. Susie Ma’am saw 3 or 4 such pictures. Suddenly, her worry resurfaced. She asked me in all seriousness, “Do you think Virginia has a friend or is that girl just a serial hugger?”

I love this story because I know Susie is a wonderful mother and a rational human being.  She also has great confidence in our children.  Finally, she is a seasoned camp professional that knows the benefits of camp.  Yet even she temporarily lost rationality and wondered if that child had hugged people for no reason other than to fool her.

BTW, Virginia was more than fine! End of Note.]

Starting in 1999, we took steps to help all parents, but first time camper parents in particular.  We were the first camp in the nation to offer online photos and articles. Doing so was hard. It involved hiring extra people and uploading thousands of photos using a dicey internet connection. We committed ourselves to writing daily articles.  About the same time, we also decided to offer a Parent Phone Call after 7-8 days to answer any questions parents might have.

Several years ago, we decided to do several things just for our first year families.  We made our Parent Camp Guide more detailed, we offered Open Houses and we sent every first-time family a copy of Michael Thompson’s book about camp, “Homesick and Happy”.  For all campers, we also added a written camper report that we would send at the end of the summer.

Starting this year, we increase our efforts even more. We created a team dedicated to our new families led by one of our directors (Craw Ma’am). The others are people who have proven themselves especially skilled working with new campers. Three are former members of our leadership team who could not work all summer.  Others are people we have wanted to hire at the leadership level, but could not due to their schedule. 

This new position does not have to be an all-summer position, so it enables us to hire some of the most experienced people who want a new challenge.  We require our Leadership Team to work all summer so that we can have consistency in our Division Leaders and Department Heads.  In the past, that means that someone selected for Teach for America (for example) who can only work 9 weeks would have had only one option – be a counselor.  Now, such a person can be part of our this team focused on new families.

Let me share what we have done this year for our first time campers.

  • In addition to the “Homesick and Happy” book, we sent a gift to every new camper that included a welcome note, a map of camp and some camp necessities (water bottle, sunscreen, bandana).
  • During our first Torchlight ceremony (our camp-wide evening gathering), we welcomed the new campers and thanked them for making our family better.  We assured them that things that seem unfamiliar will soon become favorite traditions.
  • On the first full day of camp, we invited every new camper into our home after lunch for cookies and milk. We also answered any questions they might have.  Susie Ma’am and I love having them in our home.  After all, we want them to know that we consider them part of our camp family.
  • We also invite every cabin to our home for one hour of chatting and treats.  Actually, this tradition is about 5 years old, but it is a great way to assure that we can spend fun time with every camper and that they will feel valued.
  • The First Time Camper Team makes sure that we are spending a little extra time with our new campers. But we are also committed to giving our returning campers the same level of counselor attention that we always have.  This team enables us to have extra interactions with the new campers without affecting the returners.
  • This team is also checking in with counselors and Division Leaders to make sure that everyone knows our new campers and can address their concerns.
  • We are stressing to our existing campers to “reach out” to the new members of our family.  They have always done so, but they are embracing this opportunity with extra enthusiasm this summer.
  • Right before Trojan/Spartan Initiation, Susie Ma’am and I get 25-30 minutes to check in with just the new campers to answer any question that might have come up in the first week that are still out there.
  • We also have a few extra ideas, but I do not want to spoil the surprise.

In short, we want to do more than simply say, “you are welcome” to our new families.  Our sincere hope is that you will feel deeply valued.  We want to provide you evidence that we care about your child as a precious person and that he or she is loved and cared for.

I look over my past couple of blogs and feel like I have gotten a little too serious, but I want you to understand how much we care.  Tomorrow will be lighter and sillier – more “campy”.  In the meantime, I hope this blog helps our new families sleep a little better tonight!


Steve Sir


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