Incremental Improvement, Part 2

I’d grown up with daily camp chapel services, but knew in order to change the culture of this camp we’d need to show how important and meaningful it could be. It had to have a great view and comfortable seats so kids and staff would want to come early instead of straggling in late.

We needed a stage to make it exciting to be asked to be a part of a thought-for-the-day. And it needed to teach spiritual lessons whenever someone happened upon it.

As in almost every other project at Jewell, volunteers working side-by-side with top staff built the stage, the “Spirt, Mind & Body” icon, and the 36 concrete-based park benches.

We chose the park bench for its comfort (ahhhh… a back to lean against!) and its weight (nearly impossible for vandals to move them around). And the inspiration comes not just from the setting, but also the dedication plaques placed around the chapel that focus on inspirational verses and poems that cause visitors to pause and reflect.

Mini-golf: We’d always been good at providing good experiences on sunny days, but cold, wet, muddy days often left the guests disappointed.

The miniature golf course is designed to be set up in an unused recreation pavilion on short notice. The nine holes are each built out of two sections that hook together with removable-pin door hinges. Each piece can easily be carried by two people, and even fit in the back of a minivan for transportation to family night activities.

Giant slide: Sledding is very popular in our area, but unpredictable. Wouldn’t it be able if kids could have the same fun year-round?

I’d seen what we wanted at an elementary school once: a standard children’s tube-slide like you’d find at a fast-food restaurant, but it was straight (so you could see no-one is still in it) and L-O-N-G. Eighty feet in fact, going from the school to its athletic field below. Perfect! Not inexpensive, but more affordable by using volunteer labor, it’s been a non-stop attraction, doing more to tire kids out for a good night sleep (running up the hill between each speedy trip down) than any other activity.

Maybe even more appreciative than the kids, are the parents who get to sit in the gazebo at the top and sip coffee, making new friends while they hear their kids screaming, “Watch this, Dad!”

Bouldering Room: The climbing tower has been the single most popular and memorable activity for 15 years now, but the requirement for trained staff to supervise climbing limits the amount of time any child can participate.

Our “Boulder Basin” rock gym is basically a 24′ x 24′ interior playground. Handholds don’t get any higher than seven feet off the ground, so with appropriate padding (we first used wood chips, then shredded tires because of cost, but there are padded floor tiles that are even better), even spotters are not necessary and it’s considered playground equipment not “high adventure” by insurance companies.

Just as great for after-school childcare as Y-Guides, young kids as well as teens, staff and adults. Just be sure to put in benches, too, so dads can sit and watch (and talk), and kids can rest and talk with their friends until they are ready to try it again.

The New is for the Old

Every year something new… Not for the new campers, because they’d be perfectly happy getting the experience their friends had told them about in order to get them to come to camp.

In fact, we didn’t even change the brochure, except for the prices, for eight years straight. Nope, the new stuff was all about return rate, and creating anticipation that even if we didn’t get everything right, we were always trying — always listening to what was on their guest comment cards and camper-parent evaluations, and always looking for the most bang for the buck. Because it’s easier to keep a customer than go find a new one, and it’s easier being a staff member for happy guests than disappointed guests.

And it’s just plain fun to surprise people.

Gary Forster is the Camping Specialist for the YMCA of the USA. Gary can be reached at

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Related posts:

  1. Incremental Improvement, Part 1
  2. Adventures in Oz
  3. Offsides
  4. Reevaluating the Camp, Part 2
  5. Staff Recruitment – Beyond the Resume

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