Friday, May 16, 2014

So You're Going To Camp...

As we head full-force into the camping season, I'd like us to sit down and have a chat about some guidelines for visiting such a place as an adult.

Not accurate. Not a chat. A soliloquy. Please, settle in with your coffee and listen.

If it helps, I'll join you.

Now, as a general rule I am almost annoyingly upbeat here. [You: What's this "almost" crap?] Today, that's not entirely the case. I've talked before about my fascination with the people that come through; the flip side to seeing all of these people at their most unguarded moments is that we also sometimes catch them at their meanest, neediest, and most pretentious. Generally speaking, this is accidental bad behavior, but it's the kind of thing that makes my life more difficult -- and it's definitely worth addressing.

With that in mind, let's talk about some of the things that make coming to one of these places different than anywhere else you might visit. Most of this is applicable in particular if you're there yourself -- a good chunk of it is also applicable if you're sending your kids to camp for the first time and they want to know more (or either of you are nervous).


Your Retreat Center -- My Home

It's a pretty nice home.
When you turn up at a camp or a retreat center as a leader, a participant, or a volunteer, you're walking into a place that the permanent staff likely also call their home. Please, respect the place. If I could double-bold that, I would. At the end of your week or weekend, you don't want to walk into your own house and find out your spouse/kids/housesitter left it a huge mess. I also don't want to walk into the building where you were staying and discover that you genuinely didn't care about where you were and left garbage/personal belongings/wet towels/food/dishes everywhere. (Note: I mention this because it happens all the time. It breaks my heart.)

Respecting the place means using the receptacles we have for trash, recyclables, cigarette butts, and dirty dishes in the way they were intended. It also means that if something does happen -- something gets spilled, broken, or otherwise damaged -- you let the staff know. We understand, really. Things happen. Please don't leave it sitting there to be discovered when you're already an hour down the road. Limit the surprises and we'll all be happy.

Don't Expect A Personality Shift
If you're on a corporate retreat and it happens to be at a church camp, you'd better expect it to look like a church camp. They probably won't make you sing songs or even pray before a meal, but don't expect a camp to pretend it's something else in order to avoid offending someone. Remember: you chose us. Taking down our usual d├ęcor or covering things up is dishonest to our purpose, and we don't like it.

If you're having a family reunion or adult retreat at a camp with any kind of nonprofit association, remember to ask about their alcohol policy. This differs state-to-state and camp-to-camp. Don't assume anything.
This Isn't A Hotel With A Hotel Budget And...

Most camps and retreat centers fall firmly into nonprofit status. This means a lot of things -- a lot of reliance on donations, making do with whatever is already on hand, fixing things that are already beyond fixing -- but what it means most is

... There Aren't A Lot Of Us Working Here

I saw this and thought, "I bet they have an entire housekeeping crew! And
dedicated groundskeepers! And a lifeguard that only lifeguards!"
Particularly if you're visiting in the "off-season" (that is, any time the local school districts are in session), you will be walking into a place with only a handful of people taking care of the guests and grounds. During the summer there is likely also a seasonal crew but a similarly larger number of guests. The bottom line is still the same: we're stretched pretty thin.

Please be kind. A lot of guests combined with a low number of employees means a lot of long hours for most of us -- usually for long stretches (like the entire dang summer) -- and not a lot of vacation time. We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't love our jobs and locations, but you may very well catch us on bad days. If your attitude is good (and hey, you're at camp!), ours will be better even without a lot of sleep.

Plus, you know, late nights followed by early mornings get rough. We do our best, but it'd be awesome if you'd help us out a bit.

Planning Is Everything

If you're planning an event and have a pile of requests, make as many of them ahead of time as possible. If you need something last-minute, it may take a bit before it can be taken care of. Most of these places don't have dedicated IT folks, easy (or fast) access to additional groceries, or you may be sharing space and supplies with another group. There are no unlimited resources, but we can usually accommodate. Any and all pre-planning will make this more likely.

This also applies to dietary needs! Most of the camps that provide meals have dealt with all sorts of dietary needs, whether you're diabetic, vegetarian, gluten-free, allergic to nuts/strawberries/red 40/everything. If one of these applies to you or your children, make sure your leader knows (or in the case of a child going to camp, it ends up on his/her registration form). If it's particularly complicated, call the camp directly. Really, we prefer more information than not enough, and this is something that should always be addressed in advance. We want everyone to have something to eat and we're really not fans of epi-pen use.

Also, this cuts down on everyone's stress levels. No one wants to be stressed (or hungry) when they're on vacation.
Remember The Essentials

Again, this isn't a hotel you're visiting. Did your camp dean or group leader send out a list of things to bring? Are you trying to figure out what you need to send with your kids? Odds are -- if you're going to a camp associated with a church, Scouts, 4-H, or similar organization -- attendees should bring all the usual weekend-away stuff (clothes and toiletries) along with bedding and a towel. If you think your group may have such a thing provided, ask. Some of our groups do have us provide linens, which we in turn order from an outside source. However, that's not standard operating procedure. Always make sure before you leave home.

Generally, most places can fill in the blanks for someone who forgot to grab something, but most camps don't keep enough linens or towels on hand for everyone. We'd very much prefer you at least have the option to shower and get a good night's sleep. Smelly, cranky people are no fun.
We also like fresh breath.

Schedules Matter, Especially For Food
Continuing with the planning ideas, most camps have a regular meal schedule and (a) it doesn't change much beyond a half-hour in either direction and (b) we don't enjoy holding food for a group that will trickle in over the course of a morning. If breakfast is at 8:00, don't expect there to be much left by 8:30. Take note of your schedule and let the staff know if something's gone sideways as soon as possible. If your morning sessions are running late, if you're offsite for the afternoon and were late leaving your activity, if the weather is messing with things and you want to move something around -- let the staff know. Most camps do meals at a scheduled time because that's the safest and most efficient way to serve 150 people on four schedules (the longer food is held, the harder it is to keep it sufficiently not gross), and we don't want to spend an evening wondering where the group is and did they forget about supper?
Really, what we're looking for here is ease & tasty food.
Actually, Schedules Just Plain Matter
... especially if you have transportation needs, A/V needs, or if camp is ending and you need to pick up your kids. Just remember that your actions (or inaction) will likely affect both the staff's schedule and potentially another group's arrangements.

You May Have To Share
If it wasn't obvious by the multiple times I've mentioned "other groups," you will likely find yourself among strangers (besides the ones in your own camp or group). It's not as anonymous as a hotel and many camps like to at least give groups space to themselves, but there will still be shared space and shared stuff.
Here's the thing: this is almost exclusively an adult problem. Kids don't have issues sharing. They even enjoy it. (Especially if they're in the game room.) If someone gets territorial, it's probably an adult.
While I understand that sometimes other groups get loud, or sometimes you just want a room to yourself, it may simply not be an option. Most groups observe quiet hours but demanding a group keep it down mid-afternoon is ... kind of rude, actually. If you want help finding a quiet spot to read, ask a staff member.
You May Have To Disconnect
This symbol is the bane of my existence.
Okay, this one may not be true for every camp out there, but as it's particularly true for my own locale, I have to mention it.
If you're going to require cell service or Wi-Fi, you may want to rethink your plans.
A lot of camps are found in remote (or even just moderately remote) areas. A lot of us also don't have the budget or the infrastructure to get internet service into every building. And remember how I mentioned the fact that we, by and large, don't have dedicated IT folks? All of this plays in to this particular item.
Speaking for my location, we both (a) are in a spot with only occasional cell service, and (b) have exactly two internet options, neither of which are great. And I'm our IT department, a job I ended up with simply because I was born in the '80s.
If it's not absolutely necessary, turn off your cell phone and enjoy the time away. Seriously, it can be amazing. If you're concerned that someone may need to reach you, by all means, give them our phone number and we will get a message to you. (Make sure that person knows in which group we may find you.)
If you need material that you would normally just pull up or stream from the internet, see if you can download it ahead of time or have a backup plan. The problems with rural internet service range from low bandwidth due to multiple users to download limits (just like a data plan on your cell phone) to funky geography that makes bouncing Wi-Fi signals difficult. It doesn't always work. Again, plan ahead. It'll save a lot of headaches and cursing later on.
Ugh. I could write an entire post on this one. It wouldn't be friendly. Let's move on, shall we?
Leadership Determines Behavior

If you're a camp counselor and you're setting a good example, the kids will be better-behaved and have more fun. If you're an organizer for an adult group and you let your crew know that there are rules and the staff is there to make things better but not to wait on you hand and foot, your crew will know how things work and be more relaxed.

Don't get me wrong -- there's always somebody. For that matter, there's always somebody that just isn't having a good week(end) and no amount of anything is going to make them pleasant. But "somebody" is easy to handle if it's not "everybody." That's precisely what good leadership avoids.

Really, What We Want More Than Anything...

... is for you and/or your kids to enjoy your time at camp and leave feeling refreshed. Help us take care of the place and we'll be more than willing to make your time here the best it can be.


All right. That's the end of my talk. Hopefully it clears up a few things -- and hopefully you can remember all this the next time you find yourself on a retreat, be it church-related or a corporate gathering. We look forward to seeing you!

Now, I think I need to find a roll to go with what's left of my coffee...

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