As a 14-year-old camper at Phantom Lake YMCA Camp (Mukwonago, Wis.) back in 1982, I can still remember how badly I wanted to be one of the older campers who were part of the camp’s Staff Development Program, or an SDP, as we called our junior counselors.
Twenty-three years later, it still amazes me today how excited our older campers at YMCA Camp Benson get on the last day of a session when they are offered applications to our SDP for the following summer.
The truth be told, I am still just as excited about being an SDP co-director today as they are to be joining the program. I have worn — and worn out — many hats over my twenty-some years of YMCA summer camp work, but still find working with SDPs (or junior counselors, or any other term you prefer to call an older camper who is in training to be a future summer camp staff member) to be the most exciting and rewarding area of camp work.
One part of this comes from their excitement about finally getting to become an SDP. Another part of it also comes from the same rationale that makes teaching middle school/junior high age students (grades 6-8) my favorite age group to work with during the school year.
My former camp counselor, “Indo” Joe Diedrich, stated this quality best: “The clay is still wet.” They are old enough to be responsible, and young enough to still be flexible. That is, they can still be molded into the image of the camp staff you want to create. This can be a great advantage over finding college-age camp staffers who may or may not be able to conform to the standards you have for your camp staff.
Through years of trial-and-error and networking with other SDP directors, my co-director, Alma “Miss Giggles” Valenzuela and I were able to create a Staff Development Program that best met the needs we had at YMCA Camp Benson, which included finding a way to give campers as young as 14 an opportunity to be a part of the SDP.
In no way should what we do be thought a perfect system for all other camps. It has, in fact, been tailor-made to best suit our needs. But, if its basic organization is useful to other camps that are starting up their own SDPs, or running one they’re looking at updating, I am pleased to share what we are doing, and wish you all the best in adapting any part of it that may meet the needs of your own Staff Development Program. Good luck and Camp On!
Depending on your budget limits and the number of SDPs your program enlists, an SDP can be run by a single director, two co-directors (ideally one male and one female in a co-ed camp environment), or even with optional assistant directors under the main SDP directors.
I have worked both by myself and in groups as big as four. For the sake of this example, I will use our current situation at YMCA Camp Benson… Two co-directors (myself and “Miss Giggles”).
Use great care when choosing your SDP directors. Remember, it will be their example that the SDPs will not only follow this summer, but also continue to emulate in future summers as your camp staff.
Who on your staff are the strongest role models? Who best show camp spirit and demonstrate your camp philosophy? Who can not only show the most camp color, but also exhibit great common sense and the ability to respect and follow all camp rules?
One of the great advantages to having co-directors is that there can be quite a diversity of counseling and leadership styles between the two directors, yet they can demonstrate to the SDPs on a daily basis how such differences in these styles can complement each other rather than clash in camp life. It also may be helpful to consider who has counseled with older campers in recent summers, as they will have some base familiarity with the SDPs (some of whom may have already been in her/his cabin previously as a camper).
Level One: CITs, Age 14
On the last day of a camp session, Miss Giggles and I meet with campers who are currently 13 years old and interested in applying for the SDP the following summer at age 14.
Some camps may be required to limit it to those who would be turning 14 by June 1 of the following summer. It depends on whether there are similar policies about being 18 by June 1 to be able to apply as camp staff, so as not to have a camper go through the whole program only to find there is another full summer to wait because they are not yet 18 in time to apply. In such a case, I advise having that camper wait one more year before being allowed to join the SDP.
At Camp Benson, we have an “open acceptance” policy in that every camper who is interested and applies is given a chance as a CIT. Other camps I have worked at required three letters of reference from outside of camp along with a positive recommendation from their current camp counselor. I’ve even heard of some camps that ask for an essay about why the camper wants to be an SDP.
Basically, each camp comes up with its own hoops based on its camper population and needs. Those that have a very small camper pool to choose from may be less particular than those with a huge camper population who can easily afford to be more selective and still fill their needs.
Personally, I like the “open acceptance” policy because it allows for every camper to be given the same first chance as any other camper without the camp making any determinations ahead of time about who may be “worthy” versus “not-worthy” to be given an initial chance. This way, we start with a large group, and then make cuts each year in deciding who moves on to the next level and who does not based on their performance — what they actually did (or did not do) — as a CIT, rather than just making a guess about who we think may or may not be successful in the SDP.
The following summer, these campers become official members of the SDP (called SDPs). For the first year of the program, they are also called CITs (Campers in Training). They come to camp for one session, paying the session fee like any other camper. They stay in one cabin group together with other CITs and one of the SDP Directors who acts as that group’s counselor.
If your camp is able to bring in two additional SDP staff people, this would be the role for them — CIT directors, as counselors in the cabin with these CITs during this week. Since our camp just has the two of us, we alternate the CIT training weeks so we either have male CITs or female CITs in camp at one time, so the other SDP director is always “out of the cabin” and free to float as needed (in a coed setting such as Camp Benson, this also helps to greatly reduce the “distraction” of having both male and female CITs in camp at the same time).
During their week at camp, CITs spend part of the day doing regular camper activities, and part of the day apart from the rest of the campers doing training sessions with the SDP co-directors (group dynamics, camper age characteristics, camp philosophy and history, camper-oriented focus, etc.). They also spend some time with other cabin groups observing interactions between counselors, campers and older SDPs. They help with simple camp service projects (setting up campfires, preparing ceremonies, etc.) during the week. In many respects, they are exactly what their name implies: campers who happen to have some extra training responsibilities during their day.
They should have daily feedback from SDP directors and camp staff about how they are doing (both positive things and also “challenge” areas in which they need to grow, if any).
At the end of their session, they will have a formal evaluation with both SDP directors (and CIT directors, if any) to determine their overall performance and whether they will be invited back the following summer to the second level of the SDP as a Leader in Training (LIT).
Level Two: LITs, Age 15
Those CITs from the previous summer who were invited back to continue in the SDP are now known as Leaders in Training (LITs). The LITs also come for one camp session (and pay the same camp fee as any other camper for their session).
This time, however, the LITs move into cabins and work with a counselor and a camper group. They stay with their cabin group for the entire session. They attend a daily SDP Meeting with the SDP directors and other SDPs to discuss what they are doing and role-play different scenarios as well as continuing with training sessions.
They rotate around to different camp activities during the activity periods so they work at every activity offered at least once during their session. They are also required to help their counselors or activity directors to lead a song, game, or other “in front” skit or activity for the whole camp.
They should have daily feedback from SDP directors and camp staff. At the end of their session they will, again, have a formal evaluation with both SDP directors to determine their overall performance and whether they will be invited back the following summer to the third level of the SDP, as a Camp Ambassador (AMB).
Level Three: AMBs, Age 16
Those LITs from the previous summer who were invited back to continue in the SDP are now known as Camp Ambassadors (AMBs).
The AMBs come for two sessions, but only pay for one. In lieu of paying for the second session, we ask that they actively try to recruit one new camper to camp for the summer. We don’t check off their name to keep tabs should they succeed in this, nor do we drop them from the program if they don’t; we just ask that they make the attempt (it’s all taken on good faith).
For both sessions the AMBs live in a cabin group with a counselor and campers. We make every effort to try and place them in different age groups and with different counselors to help ensure they get the most varied camp experience possible.
This year, they are required to lead the whole camp in a song, skit, or story on their own. They also continue to rotate among the camp activities, spending some time at each one during the session.
In addition to their two sessions at YMCA Camp Benson, they are also given the opportunity to spend an optional third session “away” at another area YMCA camp (pre-approved and arranged ahead of time by the SDP directors, if possible) as part of an SDP Exchange Program. If possible, an AMB Group Trip is also arranged to visit another camp or two in the area while it’s in session to see how other camps are set up and run.
Such experiences will help foster goodwill and networking between Camp Benson and other area camps, as well as offer unique leadership experiences to our Camp Ambassadors.
AMBs continue to have daily feedback from SDP directors and camp staff. At the end of their second session they will, again, have a formal evaluation with both SDP directors to determine their overall performance and whether they will be invited back the following summer to the fourth and final level of the SDP, as an Assistant Counselor (AC).
Level 4: ACs, Age 17
The AMBs from last summer who are invited back for the fourth and final year of the SDP Program are called Assistant Counselors (ACs). The camp director should now become very involved in their progress each session, as he will be deciding which ones may be hired onto staff the following summer. Does any of this remind you of The Apprentice? Well, cut out the backstabbing and Trump nonsense and perhaps it does…in fact, just this past month I was emailed by AMB Tom “QRS” Stowe who had read the new level requirements and wrote, “I sure hope I don’t get voted off the island… You’re fired!”
Anyway, ACs each come for three weeks, volunteering their time and talents. In exchange for not paying for the sessions, we again ask them to be actively recruiting new campers, and do their best to try and bring in at least one new camper this summer.
Again, the AC lives with a different camper group each week, under a cabin counselor. The AC also works at camp activities, but spends a full week assigned to one activity period to help him or her to specialize in that activity area (perhaps this will be an activity that this same AC will be asked to run next year when he or she is a staff member).
We also ask each AC to introduce and teach a new song, game, skit, or program at YMCA Camp Benson. They may also be asked to help with training sessions in a leadership role with the current session’s CITs.
ACs should continue to have daily feedback from SDP directors and camp staff. At the end of their final session they will, again, have a formal evaluation with both SDP directors to determine their overall performance. In addition, each AC will also have a one-on-one formal job interview with the camp director to determine employment possibilities for the following summer when they’re 18.
A Few Random Off-Season Suggestions
Retreats: We try to offer a fall weekend retreat in October for all the SDPs we’re inviting back the next summer to debrief the previous summer and offer additional training sessions in any areas that may have seemed a bit weak.
We also try to do a spring retreat in March or April that includes the new incoming CITs so they can meet the whole group and spend some time with everybody. This is also a great opportunity to offer First Aid, CPR, or other important group sessions that would take a lot of time during the regular summer session (blood-borne pathogens, child abuse, camp personnel policies, etc.). Sometimes we try to offer a separate CIT Retreat, led by the ACs.
Camp Events: Encourage all SDPs to volunteer to help at camp events during the year (Fall Camp, Winter Camp, retreat groups, etc.)
SDP Newsletter: Keep the SDPs informed about what everybody is up to by publishing an SDP Newsletter. Include birthdays, upcoming camp events, and updates about what the SDPs themselves are up to away from camp (especially highlight school and sports accomplishments). I always like to throw in quotes, answer common questions/SDP concerns, share stories/memories submitted by the SDPs themselves, and run an occasional contest in which SDPs may win valuable camp store memorabilia.
SDP Spring Break Trips: If your camp is able to offer such trips, offer a biking, backpacking, canoeing or other special trip to your SDPs in the spring when they are off of school for Spring Break or in the early and late summer, before and after the regular camp season.
Slim Gillin is head counselor and SDP co-director at YMCA Camp Merrill M. Benson, Mt. Carroll, Ill. In the off-season, Slim teaches middle school in the remote Yup’ik Eskimo village of Hooper Bay, Alaska.