The Best is Ready to Begin

Today was another busy and fun-filled day of staff training week, and I can hardly believe that camp officially starts just a few days from now! Camp is looking great, with some incredible improvements including a huge pea patch-style garden center, a freshly revamped and expanded health center with a visitor’s window so that even when they’re feeling under the weather campers can visit with their friends, as well as new and improved athletic fields (the part of camp that’s fondly referred to as the “airstrip”) has doubled in size so there’s more space to really stretch out during projects and evening programs.

And behind it all is our exceptionally well-rounded administrative team. Having grown up surrounded by the camp life, I know just how important having a strong leadership team is to the success of each and every summer. In addition to the 25 years of camping experience that Barbara and I each bring, we can also reap the many benefits of the eight years that our assistant director, LBD has in the business and of course Erin’s six years of camping experience. Additionally, we are pretty darn proud of this impressive roster of BT administrative team members:

• Dylan Chernov, has been at camp for 25 years and has been our Wilderness Trip Director for 14 years. He holds two Masters Degrees as well as a PHD, and is the proud steward of BT’s new garden project.
• Tom Thatcher, our Assistant Trip Director has been at camp for five years (he even met his fiancé here!) and holds a Masters Degree in Outdoor Education.
• Emily Heins is ready for her 12th year at camp, working this summer as our Junior Counselor Director. Emily recently earned her Masters in social Work.
• Dani Steele, our Head Counselor, holds a Masters Degree in Secondary Education. Dani can’t wait to work another summer after making camp her home for 14 years.
• Cabe Knight has been Birch Trail’s Waterfront Director for 25 years! Cabe holds a PHD in Child Psychology.
• Our dynamic Program Director duo, Emily Blumberg and Rachel Broder, have both been BT girls for 10 years, so they know a thing or to about planning the fun!
• Ellie Kahn, our Maple Village Director, has spent nine years at camp.
• Nisha Soni, who has also been at Birch Trail for nine years, will be our Activity Director this summer along with Emma Pucker, a BT babe for three years
• Lisa Busch (Remember Tom? Lisa is his aforementioned future wifey!), 6th year at camp staff programmer (plan events for staff like learn to make you own sushi night)
• Bev Driscoll, starting her 5th year at camp, makes her Staff Programmer debut this summer, planning events for staff like “Learn to Make Your Own Sushi Night”

That’s a grand total of 185 years of camp experience and 7 advanced degrees just on our administrative team—that’s pretty cool! This core group of people helps set the tone and provide a solid foundation for the rest of the camp community, and keeps things running smoothly and happily. The admin team is extremely busy this week, making sure that each member of our staff feels comfortable, prepared, and excited for the campers to arrive.

One way we accomplish this is by taking part in a special BT tradition that Barbara and I are awfully proud of. When staff orientation began this past Sunday, each staff member was given a small coleus plant seedling, a flower pot, and some potting soil. As they transplanted the young and fragile plants, taking care to handle the roots with care, we guided them to think about how much this process is like caring for campers.

As the seedlings were moved from their comfortable environments, we instructed the staff to make that transition as gentle and comfortable as possible, thinking all the while how much this process is the same for campers who will soon be leaving their comfortable environments at home. Just like we are now getting the cabins, grounds, activities, and equipment ready for the campers, the staff needed to get the new pots ready for the plants. When the plants were placed in their new pots and were surrounded by healthy soil, the staff then gave the plants a drink of water for sustenance. When the campers arrive, the staff will need to show them where their new home will be here at camp and then take them to the lodge for water, juice, cookies or a sandwich, depending on how hungry they are.

Next, each staff member needed to find the perfect place for their plant so that it gets what it needs: sunlight and fresh air. This way, the plants will grow and thrive and bring a smile to all who look at them. We then discussed how the relationship with this new plant can even become a long-lasting one; the plants can continue to grow until they need an even bigger home and can continue to live with caretakers. On the same note, if each counselor gives their campers nurturing support, lots of encouragement and praise, exercise in the fresh air, making sure they make healthy choices at mealtimes, and helping them make and keep friendships, they will be able to see them thrive and grow and have a great relationship with them for many years to come.

We are looking forward to seeing lots of big and healthy plants going home with our staff at the end of the summer. They will even be able to take cuttings from these plants to root in water to give new plants to your friends and families. The possibilities are endless…

As staff training week continues, we’ll practice emergency procedure drills and make sure everyone knows how to properly use camp equipment; we’ll also cover all the topics that our staff members need to be familiar with in order to become great counselors, trip leaders, and specialty staff. We talk about risk management, bullying prevention, techniques for working well as a co-counseling team, and active listening (using an excellent book, titled How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk). We like to spend some extra time talking about the differences between the age groups, so that each counselor is prepared with the knowledge of what her campers need and how to provide it.

Throughout each of these sessions and programs in the weeks leading up to camp, we share with the staff–both new and returning–our philosophy of camping: we believe that every child should come away from her time at camp with new friends, new confidence, and a whole lot of fun memories. But beyond that, we think that all children need to experience successes in order to thrive, and at Birch Trail we reward each individual’s achievement. Our system of recognition is based on objective standards of effort and performance–not on winning. A camper should only compete to improve herself; she is encouraged to work hard and to finish what she starts.

With this in mind, we make sure that each staff member—no matter what their role at camp may be—knows how to praise kids properly. To help give you a better understanding of the kind of recognition your daughter will receive here at BT, here’s an example of how we do things:
Let’s say a camper tried really hard to pass her swim test and finally passed on the 10th try. While most people would just tell the child that she did a good job (and of course there is nothing wrong with this strategy), at Birch Trail, we teach our staff to take it one step further. In the same situation, we would instruct our staff to say something more structured and focused, such as “You tried that 10 times and on the 10th try, you made it! That shows amazing persistence and I’m proud of you.” By acknowledging the camper’s efforts in such a direct way, we put a label on the positive behavior and praised her for it. We want to focus on giving our campers skills that will sustain them in all their endeavors for the rest of their lives; swimming is a good skill, but persistence will make a difference in her life as she grows and takes on bigger challenges.

One of the most important elements of staff training is our focus on positive behaviors. Typically, when a child is given a set of rules, that list comprises a set of what they must not do. In those cases, it’s very clear to our children what we don’t want them to do, but it’s not always so clear what we do want them to do. We believe that if our campers can first recognize positive behavior, it’s easier for them to engage in those behaviors.

We take very seriously the responsibility and honor of taking care Birch Trail campers, and we make sure that everyone involved with camp makes the most of this precious time together before all the fun and chaos sets in. It takes a lot to be a BT staffer, but the reward of a life-changing summer is most definitely, year after year, without a single doubt, worth all the hard work.

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