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EPIC Advice for 2021 from 2020

January 28, 2021

Camp Wekeela - Hartford, ME

Camp Wekeela – Hartford, ME

The universal and unique question we in the camp community hear most often is usually, “So what do you do the rest of the year?”  Entering the camp business as an emerging professional, the list is usually longer than you’d like to give as an answer. In any given year, camp directors wave goodbye to their campers and staff in middle to late august, close the page on one summer, take a few days, and start planning their preparations for the following summer. It’s a cyclical and unique business. However, the year of 2019-2020 was unlike any other, with a global pandemic uprooting this process for every camp. Schedules, dates, tuitions, campers, staffing. Everything was changed. Every camp faced 2 scary options during the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020: open and face increased safety and health risks or close and face possible financial and relevancy risk. Some camps had no choice, with many state and local governments making the decision for them, like in the state of NY where Governor Andrew Cuomo prohibited all summer camps from operating. The choice was personal and challenging regardless. 

As most camps have entered this planning phase once again, planning to open for summer 2021 is a different story. After seeing several camps open successfully during the pandemic, including my own at Camp Wekeela in Hartford, ME most camps plan to open with varying degrees of new precautions and guidelines they may have never thought about before. Of course, there is still a lot of uncertainty when it comes to COVID variants, vaccines, local guidelines, etc. however, the most important thing is to plan accordingly and hope for the best. However, hope alone cannot lead to success. Every member of a camp team must be in total cohesion to provide the safest and most memorable experience for their community. 

As emerging professionals, the role that we have in our camps may not be the decision maker, but the facilitator. Our voice may not be the loudest heard, but our actions are powerful. In opening last year, my fear was that focusing solely on COVID-19 in changes to our program would drastically alter our camp (it didn’t) and that our staff would consume themselves with fears on how to stop COVID from spreading (it didn’t) and focus less on the other important liabilities and safety concerns we must deal with on an everyday basis (injuries, common colds, water safety, lightning, etc.). My role was to ensure that our staff didn’t become complacent and forgetful of these other important areas. At Wekeela, we maintained a 7-week bubble environment that included 4 rounds of COVID-19 testing. 

The following will help to outline ways that EPICs/Middle Management in a camp setting can help their camp planning process to ensure that other safety and risk-management areas do not fall by the wayside:

  1. Hire and train a strong staff:
    • The staff are the lifeblood of your organization. Ensuring that your staff are prepared with the vital tools to have a safe summer is a priority for EPICs. It’s important leading up to summer 2021 that, as EPICs, we are in constant communication with our staff about any preparations for camp. For example: following up with your waterfront lifeguards to make sure they completed their certifications prior to arrival will go a long way to make sure your staff is prepared before they arrive. 
  2. Plan gaps in your staff training for improvisation – both COVID and non-COVID related issues.
    • In 2020 and pre-planning for summer, we left room to have conversations about health related sessions and meetings during our staff training as things changed.  However, we also took the opportunity to not shy away from having difficult conversations with our staff. In 2020, many of our staff arrived only weeks after a wave of social justice protests swept the nation. We found it important (and very healthy) to allow our staff time to speak about the world and get a therapeutic understanding of what their fellow co-counselors felt. This ultimately allowed our staff to have these conversations with their campers when and if they brought them up during the summer. 
  3. Have open communication with your families that things are subject to change.
    • Due to COVID-19, we had to cancel our off-camp trips; optional programming (horseback riding); and ropes courses. This was a big set-back to many of our campers who were excited for these fun new adventures. We couldn’t in good conscience allow our campers to use the ropes course for example, when our staff had not been properly trained. Ultimately, explaining to our parents and campers that these were not being offered due to safety concerns and trainings that were not possible during a pandemic were mostly understood. 
  4. Stay positive and flexible. 
    • I am a person who feels like they need control at all times and being flexible is challenging. I recognize that it is a major flaw of mine. Learning to be flexible and positive when the world seems to be so negative was and is very hard for me to do. If this is challenging for you, what helped me to stay grounded last summer and going forward is explaining the power of camp to myself. Camp Wekeela in 2020 provided hundreds of campers and staff with arguably the only (safe) form of ‘normalness’ they would have gotten otherwise. Knowing the power that we had to shape so many people kept me going. 
  5. Plan early and expect things to change:
    • I planned our entire camp program, schedules, etc. months in advance thinking that I got ahead of it. Everything was scrapped and I finished our schedules a week before campers arrived. However, having this basis of goals and things I wanted to accomplish was incredibly helpful. Shorting from a 7 week evening program schedule to a 5 week was actually a blessing in disguise, allowing us to have what I called the “greatest hits” of activities every day and creating more fun. Again – the flexibility was key.

Whatever 2021 brings, we as EPICs have a massive responsibility to ensure that our camp community does not focus solely on COVID-19 and the related policies. So many EPICs are vital to the planning of their camp and we can all work together to bring our campers a sense of normalcy and safety that does not have to do with COVID.

Jonathan is the full time Assistant Director of Camp Wekeela in Hartford, ME. Jonathan has a degree in Hospitality Administration from Boston University, and he serves on ACA, New England’s Emerging Professionals in Camp Committee and the Education Committee. Jonathan has spent every year of his life at Wekeela, 10 years as a campers, 7 as a staff member. Jonathan’s roles at camp have included being a Landsports staff, Cabin Leader, Operations Coordinator, Leadership-in-Training Coordinator, Campus Leader, and now oversees Wekeela’s summer program as Program Director. Jonathan oversees all of Wekeela’s Staff Hiring to ensure that Wekeela has the best staff possible!

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