Developing Details

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!

The Staff

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.

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