The affirmation postcard is the single greatest idea I’ve ever had to build camper retention, communicate effectively with parents, and build a camper’s sense of self-worth. Like all good ideas, it just seemed to arrive one day when I was trying to solve a problem, but as I look back, I realized it has all the markings of a Gary Forster special.
As you may know, Gary Forster is the YMCA camping guru (his actual title is Camping Specialist) and a regular contributor to Camp Business magazine. Lately, Forster has been pushing the idea of friendships. He’s constantly reminding those of us in the YMCA camp community to remember it’s the special friendships kids make at camp and not the bells and whistles that keep them connected to the camp. He’s constantly reinforcing the message that our camps are more than amusement parks and that we need to focus on that aspect of camp if we want to continue to be successful.
An Idea Is Born
To drive his point home, Forster has presented a host of ideas designed to specifically foster camp friendships, things like creating space around camp for kids to simply hang out, talk, and get to know each other, or letting them do productive tasks together such as carrying water jugs, and on and on.
All of these ideas and more were bouncing around my subconscious as I sat down to solve one of our camp’s problems–how to strengthen our nightly devotions, that time when counselors are supposed to reinforce their connection with kids by talking with them about their day.
We feel so strongly about this portion of the camp program that we have a thick staff manual, which includes an entire section chock-full of devotional parables, stories that teach a moral lesson and help the kids drift off to dreamland. But, the program wasn’t working, well, at least not for the boy cabins.
Our female counselors had a reputation for going above and beyond the call of duty. A favorite for them was to play “Two Petals and Thorn”–a chance for campers to talk about two things they liked about their day and one they didn’t. The male counselors, on the other hand, had a well-deserved reputation for rushing through a story and taking off or skipping the parable entirely and reading excerpts from their Molecular Biophysics textbooks in an effective attempt to bore the kids to sleep (to their credit, it worked).
I wanted to create a system true to the original intent of our nightly devotion AND have a way to track whether or not all of the counselors actually did it. The affirmation postcard was born.
The Affirmation Postcard
Have you ever done the activity where everyone writes a compliment on a piece of paper on someone’s back? At the end, everyone takes the piece of paper off and can read the nice things people have written about them. The affirmation postcard is based on this idea.
On Thursday night, campers sit down in a circle. Their counselors publicly read an affirmation they have written about each of the campers and hand a card out with the camper’s name and the affirmation. Then, they explain that everyone is going to participate in a ceremony that will celebrate their friendship with each other and work to find the good in everyone.
The ceremony disarms the campers, putting them in the mood to write an affirmation for each other. Then, the cards are passed around, and each camper writes an affirmation about each of the other campers in that cabin. When everyone is finished, the counselors read the postcards (to make sure that they are appropriate), then pass them back to the campers so they can read what everyone wrote about them. The counselors stress how camp is the most unique place in the world, how strong and fast the friendships are being formed here and, eventually, everyone goes go bed elated.
Extending The Feeling
That’s cool, right? But it’s not over. Now you have proof your counselors spent good, quality time, affirming your campers and building their character. You also have a record of the friendships that are formed at camp and have an instant “feel good.” Whenever these campers read their cards again, all their camp memories will come rushing back.
Guess what? Their parents are going to be just as excited. Now, they have a card full of compliments from campers and counselors, illustrating just how awesome their kid is and how many friendships he or she made, and you have proof that positive role models exist at your camp.
To maximize the impact of the affirmation postcards, we take care to collect and keep them in the camp office. We do not send them home with our campers for fear they will get lost in their stuff, left at the cabin or simply overlooked in the post-camp move-out craze.
Instead, we take care to mail these affirmation postcards (along with early-registration forms) in January or February when the cold wind (at least in our part of the world) is blowing, and our campers are in need of a good memory. Since the cards make perfect “refrigerator art,” Mom has something she can proudly display next to the “to do” list, homework assignments and various arts and crafts projects. The not so subtle message is, “See what great effect we are having on your child. We enjoy having him or her here; please return.”
This does not replace the counselor postcard I mentioned earlier. We still send that out later in the year. But the affirmation postcard has become a great way to remind kids of why they love camp and to show parents what we do best: build kids stronger and recognize them for their greatness.
Stuart MacKenzie is Program Coordinator at YMCA Camp Ernst in Burlington, Kentucky. He has been on Camp Ernst’s summer staff since 1999. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.