Sessions: Four summer sessions, two weeks each
Age: 8-14 years
What do coaches do during the off-season? Many take a much-deserved vacation, some slow down just to take a break, and others continue to work with kids.
The latter was true for Alabama’s Hall of Fame Coach Malcolm Laney, who began a camp for boys in 1959 atop Lookout Mountain. The 126-acre quiet forest setting became an ideal piece of real estate to develop a camp aimed at fun, adventure and being close to God.
Included with the land is the clean, swimmable, kayakable, Little River, along with nearby canyons, cliffs and waterfalls.
For 15 summers Coach Laney dedicated his time to strengthening the character and physical development of boys before handing over the reins to current director Rob Hammond in 1974.
“It’s the Laney network,” says associate director Whitney Chapman when referring to how Hammond and Chapman acquired their positions. “I began as a camper in 1977 and now it’s my eleventh year as a full-time staff member.”
Consequently, even today, previous campers are given priority to work. Since these are now college-age young men who haven’t gone to camp in several years, a wealth of information is sent to trigger memory lane. Brochures, videos, and personal contacts reconnect the would-be staffers and former campers who comprise half of the team each summer.
The Laney Network, producing return campers as staff, breeds a sense of loyalty among the team, as well as familiarity with the program. “When I was a kid, the whole camp was divided into two groups, Apaches and Comanches, and it’s been that way ever since,” reflects Chapman.
Some things just don’t disappear. One Laney staple is the hide-and-go-seek type game called Tribe Hunt where the campers hide and the tribe that finds the most boys wins. The kids won’t soon forget playing this game and many others that can earn their team Tribal Points.
At the end of the session the team with the most points walks away with a trophy, bragging rights, and the intent to return and re-create the fun the following year.
In addition to tribal competitions, getting boys to return year after year has been accomplished by strategic follow-up and creative recruitment.
Newsletters showing the best of the best summer pictures are mailed to the campers. And Christmas cards to the families convey a message of care. “We put lots of pictures on all the information we send out,” remarks Chapman, “It’s a visual reminder about how much fun they had.”
With nearly 800 boys attending camp each summer, Camp Laney has a long-standing positive reputation in the South, but still relies on word of mouth from its representatives.
The Laney Reps are actually moms of campers who are scattered throughout cities, Birmingham, Mobile, Nashville, and many more. Then, new camper recruiting is done through a mom who volunteers to host a show in order to promote the camp in her area.
The 20-30 reps/moms are asked to send out invitations for a camp slideshow. They also give out information, and are available to answer any questions about Camp Laney.
Afterwards they talk with the parents and the boys and answer any questions they may have. Traveling to these shows keeps the camp directors busy and on the road throughout the fall off-season.
Furthermore, depending on camper longevity or due to turnover, Chapman may have moms who serve for several years, while at the same time he’s active enlisting new ones from the brand new batch of younger campers’ moms.
Therefore, this creates a never-ending cycle of enlisting mothers as representatives, equipping them to recruit campers, and serving new campers whose moms may be future representatives.
Once a mom is recruited she is oriented and equipped using a Representative Manual compiled by the camp directors. This contains the dos and don’ts of hosting a camp show.
For instance, don’t compare programs of other camps with potential Camp Laney families, but do explain the Laney program and things like how the staff is selected and trained.
Also, the benefits of being an ACA accredited camp are presented to assure the parents of safety and well-being issues.
Representative moms are committed to the camp because of the positive experiences of their sons. The Representative Manual helps these moms talk effectively about camp with prospective families. Director Rob Hammond says, “I’d rather have one new representative than go to three camp fairs.”
This is the most efficient and effective way he has discovered in promoting his camp and signing up new campers.
Friends & Family
Although fun experiences and high adventure are at the forefront, Camp Laney has a well-defined mission to enhance relationships with each other and with God. “The main thing is that they make great friends,” emphasizes Chapman.
The emphasis on relationship building is also evident during staff training. “We do a lot of the same type of team building stuff we do with our campers,” says Chapman. “When they get here they are a little nervous just like the campers are, and we want them to feel at ease and let them know they will have a great summer.”
Staff educators who are extremely well-versed in various aspects of the camp experience put the staff through rigorous learning exercises. For the 30-40 summer staffers to get to know one another and begin feeling comfortable with each other is of utmost concern and it’s evident by the specialists who are hired.
Professors, authors, certified trainers and others teach everything from life guarding and archery, to teamwork and psychology. The amply-trained staff thrives on giving each boy personal attention, which is why the camper counselor ratio is 4-1.
One challenge has been to keep the summer staff motivated and fatigue-free. As the summer goes on, they must be reminded that every session is important and deserves the best experience possible. “There’s no big secret that I know of to keep them motivated. Hopefully you have some key counselors to keep the others fired up,” admits Chapman.
The ability to stay enthusiastic for the entire summer is a counselor attribute that comes few and far between for most camps, but using the Laney network has benefited in this area. Finding and keeping them is an asset because their excitement rubs off on the entire staff.
Another effective tool used by the camp has been the on-line resources provided by Bunk1. Parents have been put at ease by being able to login daily and read newsletters, updates, announcements and even a menu of what is being ingested by their offspring.
Last summer Chapman was busy posting over 8,000 pictures with the intent of photographing “every boy, every day,” he states. “Parents like to see their son smiling, and one dad even noticed that his boy wasn’t wearing his glasses.”
After a call from the concerned father, the staff discovered that the boy had broken his glasses and didn’t inform anyone. The problem was resolved immediately, and everyone was thankful for the cyberspace one-way window.
Camp Laney is a traditional camp that programs four two-week summer sessions for boys ages 8 through 14 who come from several states throughout the Southeast United States.
“We do a little bit of everything; we don’t specialize in any one thing,” was Chapman’s answer to describing his type of camp. “We want them to get a taste of the overall camping experience and give them a chance to do a lot of things they don’t get to do back home.”
Although traditional boyhood pastimes are offered, the programming maximizes their rugged natural surroundings. A ropes course, horses, water sports, climbing wall and a bouldering complex are several of the activities offered at this mountain hideaway.
Bouldering is similar to a climbing wall, but it uses three 10-foot tall pods that are different sizes, shapes and have various handholds. It’s used to develop climbing skills prior to taking on the 32-foot climbing tower.
Moreover, when a boy completes the sixth grade, they are allowed to participate in offsite natural rock climbing trips.
In additional to the climbing excursions, the boys are taken on charted bus white-water rafting trips to nearby rivers. The age of the boy depends on the level of rafting and the severity of the rapids.
Each year director Rob Hammond brings in a new feature to get the kids excited. A 100-foot water slide was added a few years ago, and last year they added a new program within their ropes course. Each climbing and bouldering route was given a name and a point value. The campers were given a check-off card and challenged to complete each route, and earn points toward receiving one of three climbing patches.
Also, a one-week long starter camp within their regular schedule, called Junior Camp, was opened for second graders to prepare the younger boys for the future.
“We try to look for something new to excite the campers,” states Chapman, who gleans many new and creative ideas from participating in camping association meetings. “The camping community is good about sharing ideas; it’s not a stingy place at all.”
Facilities at Camp Laney are rugged yet maintained. To maximize the outdoor experience the boys are provided shelter with mountaintop character. Sixteen cabins with running water and toilets bunk campers who are grouped by age. Three Shower houses are centrally located, and one main lodge contains the dining hall, offices and infirmary.
Even though the Fort Payne hospital is located only 20 minutes away, extra provisions are made for campers to obtain medical attention right away. Two to three nurses are on duty at all times while a doctor is also housed at camp. These medical professionals are usually parents of the boys and serve one week during one of the two week summer sessions.
The commitment and persistence to networking and coaching attribute to the longevity and hall of fame reputation of Camp Laney.
David Willingham, a.k.a. Willy Dee, is a freelance writer who lives in Kerrville, Texas. He has extensive experience as a youth camp director, ministry consultant, and area network coordinator.