A Wiffle Effect

In fall 2006, after tabulating more than 1,500 camper evaluations, we discovered that Flagpole, a long-standing camp tradition, was described by the majority of campers as boring, hot, pointless and disruptive to the camp day. Wow! We had been using it since 1901.

Flagpole was really simple–three times a day, everyone would meet in the sports field, form a half-circle around the American flag, sing songs, and make announcements. The morning Flagpole included raising the flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, while the evening concluded with lowering the flag.

To address the issue, we started making a few changes. In the summer of 2007, we eliminated the noon Flagpole. In 2008, we moved everyone to a more shaded location, built a small stage, and gathered campers in a circle. The needle was beginning to move in the right direction, but we realized that something major had to be done; Flagpole was too important in bringing the entire camp community together.

A Useful Idea

In fall 2008, Ray Zetye, the camp director, was watching a group of families play Wiffle Ball on a field that he had built for the weekend. With an old wire-fence backstop in place, Ray constructed an outfield wall from cardboard and pieces of spare wood. The family campers loved the ballpark. More importantly, however, Ray noticed how they were using it.

In typical sports programs, teams are divided to match people up with similar abilities–adults play in adult leagues, girls play on girl teams, etc. However, the goal at family camp is to ensure that families have the opportunity for friendly competition among participants of all abilities, something that can be difficult to provide.

During that particular game, Ray witnessed the star of family camp weekend–the champion of the tournament–hit a homerun to win it all in the final game. Her name was Emma, she was 9, and she was a tenacious competitor. Suddenly, Ray had an idea.

Inspired By Emma

Inspired by Emma, Ray brought in a sketch of a concept for a Wiffle Ball stadium to the staff retreat later that fall. His idea fit well into our desire to have a program unique to the camping world (something we are all searching for). With the Wiffle Ball concept firmly in place, we had to solve two issues–where to build it and how to pay for it.

The first issue was resolved fairly quickly. Camp Jewell, like most New England camps, finds flat land is at a premium. Thus, the only feasible locations for construction were the current sports field or the dilapidated tennis courts from the 1950s. Needless to say, “tennis racquet” no longer appears in our “what-to-bring-to-camp list.”

The second issue was more challenging. We had to decide whether to save money and build the park ourselves or have it built by a contractor. In the end, we decided on the former approach because we had a $25,000 grant from the YMCA, a gifted camp-director’s vision and a property-manager’s passion.

Mario Hurtado, the property manager, is everything a camp director would want. He has decades of experience, is a skilled tradesmen, understands the big picture, and has earned himself a tremendous amount of respect and admiration from staff, board members and volunteers. With this in mind, it came as no surprise that Mario was able to spend less and build more than planned, with the help of over 50 adult and child volunteers he recruited!

Gaining Momentum

As summer camp approached last year, the stadium began to take shape. Thousands of children witnessed the project’s construction when they stayed at camp during school visits, or watched videos on YouTube. Volunteers returned for several weekends to see the construction through. It was a delightful showcase for parents during open houses, sending the message that Camp Jewell, despite the recession, was still growing and innovating.

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