Collegiality and Collaboration: How camp tours lead to better camping

Campers are home. Staff numbers have shrunk from robust teams to skeleton crews. And regardless of a camp’s size, location, clientele and mission, camp leadership is already looking to 2020. From programs to hiring to facilities, post-season camp scrutiny demands careful consideration and planning. The process takes time and energy, to be sure. In addition, say many camp directors, evaluating their operations benefits enormously from professional collaboration.

For three days in mid-September, close to 150 camp professionals from the U.S. and Canada engaged in just such collaboration. In a joint undertaking of ACA, New England and ACA, New York and New Jersey, the group participated in a three-day tour of six resident camps in the Sebago Lakes region of Maine. It was an opportunity to pivot from the inward focus of in-season camp operations to capturing the rewards of professional connection and a look at how other camps work.

The event kicked off on September 10, 2019 at girls’ camp Fernwood Cove in Harrison. A tour, followed by a reception and dinner, offered participants candid reflections from the camps’ leadership. Owned and directed by Jim and Beigette Gill, Fernwood Cove is one of the state’s “youngest” camps, established in 1998. It is also a leader in sustainable energy practices, including its two 20 kw solar panel arrays and the use of LED lights in every camp building.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Jim, describing the solar investment. “If you put in electricity, you have to offset it.”

Beigette said they wanted to be “transparent” about “what we were are pleased with, and what we could have done differently.” Tour participants appreciated their forthcoming approach, she said.

In addition to providing positive feedback, ranging from Fernwood Cove’s energy choices to its facilities, visitors also appreciated the “farm side of things,” including their chickens, Beigette said. As the Gill family’s year-round home, the camp has “a very lived-in, home feeling,” she said.

At the same time, operating a camp is a business endeavor, Beigette said. The couple makes its decisions about running Fernwood Cove through awareness of an essential balance: continuing to make a profound impact on campers’ lives and running their business conscientiously for the long-term.

The next morning, the tour began at Camp Micah, a coed Jewish camp in Bridgton founded two decades ago. Financed through private investors, the camp is directed by Mark Lipof, also a co-owner. Lipof, a licensed clinical social worker, told the group that when 9/11 occurred only a month after Camp Micah’s first season, “I wondered if we’d survive.”

They have indeed. The upcoming season will be Camp Micah’s 20th summer.

In addition to traditional activities – from arts to boating to a ropes course to athletics – Camp Micah also offers a cutting-edge Ninja Warrior course, a fitness center and a skate park.

“The program is very simple,” Lipof said, “but it’s hard to do.”

From Camp Micah, the group was greeted in Naples by Camp Mataponi’s Dan and Marcy Isdaner, camp owners for 27 years. The girls’ camp will mark its 110th year next summer.

In addition to a full tour of activities offerings, visitors learned about the facility’s tankless water heaters, generators, well system, and newly adopted towel service. The service translates to 2,000 towels laundered per day but allows the 325 campers leave their towels home and receive fresh towels daily at the waterfront and for showers. The result: more storage space for campers’ belongings in cabins, and a lower risk for potential infection, said Marcy.

Posted throughout Camp Mataponi are symbols of campers’ commitment to the benefits of their environment. Scattered throughout the campus are hand-painted signs displaying optimistic messages and the initials of their creators. Friends, says one sign, are “Hard to make: harder to leave; impossible to forget.”

As she walked through Camp Mataponi, long-time Tripp Lake Camp employee Samantha Menzel said she hoped to gain new ideas, from the “little things” to camps’ overall approaches. Emily Yancey agreed. Yancey made the trip from upstate New York as she prepares to take the helm from her father at Camp Regis-Applejack, a traditional, non-denominational camp her family has operated for 75 years.  “I’ve taken six pages of notes!” she said. Particularly helpful was camp directors’ willingness to be “candid” about costs and other details associated with project construction or improvements, Yancy said.

Savita Sharma, who works with special needs youth as Director of Camp Loyaltown in the Catskills, agreed. By encouraging camp personnel to learn from each other, directors “show the sign of a true professional.”  

Wednesday’s tour ended at Camp Sunshine in Casco. Executive Director Mike Katz told visitors that the camp was founded by Dr. Lawrence and Anna Gould to “provide respite, recreation, and support for children with life-threatening illnesses,” completely free of charge. Camp Sunshine’s permanent home on the shores of Sebago Lake opened in 2001; each year between 2000 and 2500 volunteers contribute their efforts, Katz said. The camp always seeks volunteers, he told the group as it gathered for a social hour and dinner. He also urged the visitors to reach out to families who might benefit from Camp Sunshine’s programs.

Co-founder Anna Gould led one of the Camp Sunshine tours, walked guests through the 24-acre campus and described details of the camp’s operation. A maximum of 40 families attends each camp session, which are illness-specific and last just under a week. Children participate in traditional, age-appropriate, camp activities, she said, while their parents enjoy a respite and join their kids for meals and time in the evenings. Families stay together in one of the camp’s 70 suites.

“For one week, these children feel ‘normal’ because they are among other kids suffering from the same illness, Gould said. “To see that is a great gift.”

The third and final day of the tour began at Tripp Lake Camp in Poland, where participants saw how one century-old, full-season girls’ camp operates. Leslie Konigsberg Levy – director since her brother, Jeffrey Konigsberg, purchased the camp in 1999 – said they continually strive to balance tradition with an eye toward changes that will enhance girls’ experiences.

“So many people on the tour kept saying, ‘It just feels like camp,’” she said. No surprise: like Camp Mataponi, next summer with mark Tripp Lake Camp’s 110th. season. Tripp Lake’s oldest building, constructed in 1913, is a cornerstone of the facility. 

While steeped in history, they have also been improvements, Levy said. For example, most buildings are now insulated. And, after some debate, Levy said leadership chose to air-condition the newly constructed dining hall, which seats 300 campers and 200 staff members. This added element allows girls to come in from their activities to eat and talk with their fellow campers in greater comfort, she said.

“It’s old-fashioned conversation, which has been lost in the world of technology,” she said. Other recent changes include a new arts center and culinary arts program, which both generated many tour participants’ interest, Levy said.

At its essence, however, Tripp Lake takes pride in its traditions. The 52 bunks are built in a circle, and “all my girls know each other,” Levy said. Other symbols include Tripp Lake uniforms, and, inside the bunks, blankets are “Tripp Lake blue.”

“They live a simple existence in a very complicated world,” Levy said.

Sharing the camp was a “thrill,” she said. “We so believe in what camp does for children.” 

The final stop of the tour was at brother-sister Kamp Kohut in Oxford. “Everyone was so appreciative,” said Associate Director Carly Rapaport Vargas.

Founded in 1907, Kamp Kohut has been owned and operated for nearly 30 years by husband-and-wife team Dan Rapaport and Lisa Tripler. Tour information ranged from camper staffing, programming, and operations issues, to history and philosophy. Personnel described the challenge of acquiring internet service, for example, plus the challenges of “having an old camp and bringing in new stuff” related to technology and infrastructure, Vargas said.

“We don’t get to see these camps,” Vargas said of the tour. “As emerging professionals, we get to see how they’re doing things.”

ACA, New England Director of Education and Professional Development Kerry Salvo said event participants “loved seeing the properties. And camps felt good about getting to share their camps with other professionals in the community.” 

The informality of walking tours allowed attendees to both ask questions of tour guides and chat with other registrants, Salvo said. 

“It’s so valuable to get to learn from each other. They realize they’re not in a bubble.”

The tour was designed to focus in large part on camps’ facilities and infrastructure, she said. “We wanted to make sure that we were choosing camps that would draw people,” she said. It also allowed attendees to gather information related to project costs and specific materials used, she said.

“Some of it is new ideas, some of it is nitty gritty,” Salvo said. “Septic systems are not something we ordinarily talk about, but it’s real. You need to have a plan.”

Visiting camps that are “young,” such as Camp Micah and Fernwood Cove, provides useful guidance in considering renovations or upgrades, Salvo said. On the other hand, tour participants saw the unique qualities of early 20th-century camps like Kamp Kohut and Tripp Lake Camp. And Camp Sunshine demonstrated not only its unique and inspiring mission, but also the elements of a nonprofit operation.

“We aren’t reinventing the wheel,” Salvo said. “Sharing resources helps us do our jobs better.”


Check out Kristine Millard's blog - Summer in Maine >