Five years ago, a new camp was added to New Hampshire camps Brookwoods and Deer Run. The camp, Moose River Outpost, was not created as a mere extension of the already-established private camps.
Though Moose River shares the Christian foundation and basic mission statement, it is quite distinct, both geographically and by the kids it serves.
Making a Difference
Moose River is located in the wilds of Maine, far from its sister camps. It’s also an Angel Tree camp, run mostly through donations, specifically geared toward kids who have parents in prison.
Angel Tree is a ministry of Chuck Colson, who runs Prison Fellowship, which is designed to help turn around the lives of inmates. Moose River is the first full-fledged Angel Tree camp, and it’s hoped that this first camp will spark more like it nationwide.
“If we get the kids out of the city it’s going to benefit them and the city. Perhaps the child will go back and break the cycle, because children of inmates are eight times more likely to go to prison if their parents are in prison,” says executive director Bob Strodel. “The first thing we did was to limit the number of kids at any one time and increase the camper-to-staff ratio to four to one. We also narrowed the scope of the ages to between 10 and 12. At that age the kids are more malleable than those who are 15 or 16. When you put clay on the potting wheel and it gets too hard it’s very difficult to change, so it’s better to start with a softer lump of clay.”
For those who have attended Moose River and reach the maximum age limit, the camp has initiated a leadership development program. Graduates of the program can come back and be junior counselors. Still others may be “mainstreamed” into Brookwoods and Deer Run.
In fact, given that Moose River is the only camp specifically geared toward Angel Tree kids, most of them are mainstreamed at camps across the country.
“We’re a test center for Prison Fellowship and they would like to see more camps around the U.S. do this. We have people come up during the summer to see how we’re doing it. They look at our staff materials and training and spend time with the kids and staff,” explains Strodel. “Last year, through CCI, they placed 5,000 Angel Tree kids in camps around the country. Imagine if every camp took three or four kids; that would really help.”
For those who are interested in bringing Angel Tree kids to camp, Strodel recommends that camps fully mainstream them, which means to make sure they’re not treated any differently. Also, it’s important to separate them into different cabins so that you don’t have a nucleus together.
“The idea is to break the cycle. Our urban director will say that by the time they’re 21, they’re either dead, in jail or they’ve fathered a bunch of kids and moved on. We’re trying to show these kids something different,” says Strodel. “It’s so neat to see these kids get excited about camping. This is the first year we’re seeing them come back to help us with staffing; it’s very gratifying.”
Moose River has two full-time staff members — a director and an area coordinator — who live in the same geographic area as the kids. After summer’s over they follow up and visit them.
“The ministry is not the 10 days the kids are at camp; it’s the follow-up and mentoring. You don’t want to throw a kid right back into the city, but if you can follow up once a week and visit the families, that’s where we see the change,” says Strodel.
Most of the kids come from the Boston area. Initially, Moose River hosted Angel Tree kids from Camden, N.J. and Bridgeport, Conn., but the camp found that the follow-up wasn’t as effective given the distances.
“The easiest way to do this is to get some Angel Tree kids through Prison Fellowship and they will help get the kids to camp. Take a few kids at a time. You don’t have to change your whole program just to help a couple of kids here and there,” says Strodel. “You could also do that at the state level.
Certain states have organizations that will help place kids in various situations, and you can effectively mainstream a couple of kids.”
Strodel adds that Prison Fellowship is planning on introducing a mentoring program across the U.S. in the future, which will be a big asset for Angel Tree campers.
Making it Work
The Angel Tree program is effective in large part because of the success of Brookwoods and Deer Run. The management of these camps helped set the stage for the management of Moose River.
Brookwoods was started in 1944 by a radiologist who wanted to offer city kids an opportunity to experience a natural setting.
It began with eight boys and has blossomed into a popular and populous camp. Deer Run — the girls’ camp — opened in 1964 and is adjacent to Brookwoods.
“We’re not here for the staff or the parents; we’re here for the kids. This is an interesting year for camping. Camping is down this year, but we’re maxed out with huge waiting lists. We had less people cancel this year than ever before,” says Strodel.
Strodel says the camps’ success is due in part to its understanding of the parents who send their kids to camp.
It boils down to an extra level of service, sprinkled with a dose of perception that’s intended to communicate the reality of camp quality.
“Moms are the ones who sign 90 percent of the checks that come here. It’s really Moms deciding where their kids are going to camp, so you have to have a reputation where the mom is comfortable sending their babies away,” explains Strodel.
“Parents often work in an office, so they’re used to fax machines and e-mail and the resulting level of service. You need to make sure that you meet their expectations, in terms of phone calls, one-on-one and prompt replies.”
Strodel recommends setting up your system in such a way that when a parent registers they receive an automated and personalized letter. As Strodel explains, it’s not simply a “Dear Parent” letter, but something that recognizes the individuality of that camper.
“We designed our applications so that we can put them in a laser printer at the end of the camp season, print the applications and send it to the parents at the end of the season,” says Strodel.
The application basically provides all of the information already filled in so that the parent can correct it as necessary and send it back quickly and easily with their deposit. It also provides a sense of urgency and immediacy by letting the parent know that a quick response assures the camper of a spot for the next year.
“It looks very professional and personal. Every time we send a letter out to a parent, I sign the letter. I want the parent to know that we run the camp at a very personal level. When they call up on the phone, and I don’t know the parent personally, I’ll call them up on the database so that I can have an intelligent conversation with the parent and meet their needs,” says Strodel.
Forms are also provided on-line so if the parent loses a form they can go to the Web site and print it out. Having great customer service and all the technological bells and whistles is one thing, but a camp must deliver on the perception it has worked so hard to garner. For Brookwoods and Deer Run, it’s a potent mixture of activities and attention to detail.
“We offer 47 different activities. Our philosophy is to do things at camp that you can’t do at home. You don’t want to play soccer all the time at a traditional, multi-activity camp, for instance, because you can do that at home,” says Strodel.
Brookwoods and Deer Run offer the gamut, including water sports, climbing walls, riflery, archery, blobbing, mountain boarding, various athletics — including soccer — and even rocketeering.
Making it Safe
With so many activities, risk management takes on special meaning at the camps. Strodel says it’s a matter of meticulous planning and staff awareness.
“It’s like taking a canoe down a river. You have to look ahead to see where the rocks are and put your canoe in a position to get around the rocks. You have to look several yards ahead to do that. Our philosophy in risk management is looking ahead as far as we can, charting a course and being ready for things that happen at camp,” says Strodel. “Before the summer begins we know exactly what our schedules are for the summer. We know our transportation schedule, our drivers, and our daily schedule to a tee. It’s already planned out so that we can get to camp and focus on the kids.”
Strodel recommends taking advantage of camp resources that are readily available, such as the American Camping Association, Christian Camping International and camp magazines. He says that all of these things add to the body of knowledge needed to assist with the risk management process.
For the all-important staff element, Strodel says staff learns by doing, not by “talking their ears off.” New staff arrives several days before returning staff so that they can go over the basics of their philosophy without going over the same ground with veteran staff.
“We show them a video that simulates a camp that had an accident, and the counselors project themselves in those circumstances. They see the counselor on the witness stand being grilled by the defense attorney about how the child was killed in a canoeing accident. Are we here to scare the counselors? No, but we’re there to show them what could really happen,” says Strodel. “We have simulated drills before the campers are here. We’re the parents when the parents aren’t here, and for some 18 year olds that’s a new concept, and the drills remind them. We’ll go through a whole day on the schedule so that their first time running the program is not with the campers.”
To find the best staff — as with most camps — the primary means is referrals. Brookwoods and Deer Run, however, go the extra mile by paying counselors to bring in quality recruits. Strodel says he’s written $500 checks to counselors who brought several people. The camps also made the decision to double counselor salaries.
Strodel says he’s a big believer in background checks, but says they can give a false sense of security. That’s why recommendations are so important.
Once at camp, Strodel says, “You want to see how they deal with people. You want to make sure there’s no anger, so you put them through role playing and pair them up with people who have different personalities.”
Making the Off-Season Work
In the off-season, the camps operate as a retreat center for churches, Bible study groups, schools and other groups. Though the camps have been doing it since 1957, Strodel says it’s taken off in the last ten years.
“We’ve made a conscious effort to provide a level of accommodations that people enjoy. You don’t want to go to a place that’s ratty, with lousy food. We have one price for all the services, which includes stuff like ice cream bars at night and unlimited hot chocolate. We’re turning people away because we’re maxed out,” says Strodel. “We have a mixture of cabins that range from rustic to private, hotel-style rooms. Don’t you think the junior-high director doesn’t mind having a hotel-style room while they’re here? That’s a selling point for them.”
At the same time the camps run a program called Higher Ground, which is a physical education/recreation program run in conjunction with local Christian schools. It includes camping, canoeing, hiking, the ropes course and other adventure programming.