Wednesday, March 30, 2016

So You're Going To Camp...

I originally posted this in two pieces -- one a year ago, one two years ago -- and in going through my old stuff, I realized how extremely relevant it all still is. So! Here we go, in one big (slightly revised to make more sense as one piece) post...

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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).

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 many 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.

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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. (Your cohorts are going to enjoy the buffet and won't be inclined to save you any bacon.) 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 and tasty food.

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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.

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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 retreat centers like to at least give groups space to themselves, but there will still be shared space (like dining rooms and game rooms) and to some degree, 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.

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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 because we're operating with old telephone lines. [For the low price of around $25,000, you can help us fix that!] 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?
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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.




 Some Other Frequently Asked Questions

I do feel it necessary to point out that all of these have come up more than once ... and that my opinion might not reflect anyone else's. Although it usually does.


I had no idea you were open year round!
It's true! We are! And the fact that you say this while standing in front of me in November drinking hot chocolate ... and this is the third time I've seen you this year ... tells me you're not paying much attention.

Is __ building heated?
This is South Dakota. Yes. We don't want frozen pipes anywhere. Although our creekside cabins aren't -- but odds are you aren't asking about those. And I rarely put people in the creekside cabins in the winter, no matter how much I might want to sometimes.

Is __ building air conditioned?
... Probably not. I mean, maybe. But probably not. Remember, we're a church camp first.

But we really wanted to be in [name of cabin/lodge/etc]...
Here's how this works. First, buildings are first-come, first-served -- I will not move a group so you can get your preference. Second, each cabin or lodge has a certain capacity. If your group has more people than that, you will end up elsewhere. (Especially if you're here with a camp.) If your group is mostly kids and you have supervision requirements, you will end up in a suitable spot that might not be your first choice (especially if your first choice was based on where you stayed when you were here with your family). If it snows and it's too difficult to get to the lodge at the top of the hill, we will put you elsewhere.

Trust us. Please.

What's for dinner?
I have no idea.

Oh! I didn't know you would be around.
Um ... we live here. And we don't have normal operating hours. Yes, someone is here.

I was expecting the answering machine!
Okay, I understand that calling at 10PM is a way to avoid having to talk to a real person, but I'll let you in on a secret: there is a phone in every residence on site. Which means we think maybe that 10PM call was in fact someone's kid/sibling/relative calling with an emergency. Which might explain why we sound less than amused when you were hoping to leave a message on voicemail.

[Related: Time zones, people. Time zones. They're a thing.]

We weren't sure you guys would be here on a weekend.
... Are we going to keep doing this?

Okay, full explanation: Ours is largely a weekend business. Nine months of the year, it's almost entirely a weekend business. Most people who come through seem to realize that one (after all, that's when you're here), but we get a decent chunk of people who don't connect our presence with the fact that they're getting three meals a day.

If you were wondering, yes, that comment does occasionally come from people standing right in front of us, not just phone calls.

Gosh, it must be wonderful to live here.
It is.

It must be vacation all the time around here!
Um, no.

No. Really, really no. If this were vacation all the time, I wouldn't have to clean up after anyone's illegal pet. Someone puking down the stairs wouldn't be my responsibility. Nor would making your laptop display to the television. I would sleep more. And I definitely wouldn't have to submit credit card receipts.

This is a job, specifically one where I take care of everyone else's vacation destination. It is not a vacation for me. I do live in my own little chunk of paradise, but that piece of paradise requires proper upkeep.

No one's in camp? Must be nice to have some time off.
*Sigh.*

There are only four of us here nine months of the year, and proper upkeep requires an empty camp. We can't renovate a room that someone's staying in. And if we're making three meals a day, we don't have time for the normal day-to-day stuff -- the planning, the bills, even (sometimes) the laundry. This is why my weekends usually fall on Tuesday and Wednesday, but like most of you, my job is still at least a 40-hour-a-week job.

Ashley! Hi! How are you? How's your brother?
Okay. Confession time.

I might not remember exactly who you are.

I pride myself on my memory. It's pretty solid on the names-faces-phone numbers front (I refer to it as an excellent stalker memory). But in the last three and a half years, I have seen around ten THOUSAND people come through here. (Not an exaggeration.) While a large number of those are repeat visitors, if you've only been through once, I might not be able to place you. If our conversation wasn't fairly extensive last time, I might not remember you exactly. If you call out of the blue and I can't see you, I might need a reminder of when you last visited.

That being said, I'm great! How are you? How was the drive?

How are the trails?
Oh, thank you for asking. Right now, they're a bit muddy in spots. If it snows, rains, or there has been other questionable weather, we appreciate you asking before you hit a trail. (Especially if you just turned up in the parking lot.)

We thought this was Mount Rushmore...
You're not funny.

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