Starting From Scratch

Photo Courtesy of Mathew Eberius, CPRP, Palm Harbor Community Services

One of the highlights for parks and recreation departments across the country is summer camp. For many, it’s a time of brainstorming, hiring staff members, setting policies, and hunkering down for 8 to 10 weeks of constant programming. I’ve grown up within the industry, starting at age 4 in a pre-kindergarten camp, and have developed a unique perspective into trends and what makes a camp program tick. At age 18, I became a full-time employee in the industry.

Two years ago, I received a job opportunity from a community-services district in the northern part of Pinellas County, Fla. During the interview, I learned the employer was looking for someone to “take camps to a new level.” Experiencing camps for so many years as a child, I immediately started thinking of ways to build a program. Little did I realize that starting from the ground up would give me—and the community—an amazing opportunity.

With two years of summer under my belt as a camp director and the chance to “start from scratch,” I knew my knowledge and experience could help other communities nurture their programs and become a top destination for any of their children.

Determine The Need

An important question to consider is, “Does this community need a camp?” For thousands of communities across the country with children and families, this is relatively easy to answer. Where are these kids going to camp now? This particular department didn’t offer a traditional school-age program during the school year, so there wasn’t a base of children that could be counted on for marketing purposes.

Photo Courtesy of Torey Scott, Palm Harbor Community Services

Determine what the community wants. Social media are often great places to communicate to a large group. Community surveys and using the media are also effective ways to get the information out.

Learn where the children are going to camp—and why. In our community, a large percentage of them were attending YMCA or religious camps. Being a governmental unit, this obviously wasn’t an option, but it’s all the same game—parents are looking for a safe, affordable, and fun environment for their child.

Building Partnerships With Schools

The most important link in building a program is marketing to the schools. Many schools have PTA organizations and fairs, events, and support groups, which provide a way to sponsor certain activities, supply bottled water for a walk-a-thon, or get involved in other ways with the school.

Let Kids Be Kids

During the first summer, one simple idea fueled the camp staff’s minds—“Let kids be kids.” Growing up, I remember having water-balloon fights, building forts, doing cannonballs into the pool, learning about the fire department, and doing things kids should be doing during the summer. In today’s municipal red tape, sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of these activities, either because the process doesn’t allow for it, or it’s not in the budget. But that doesn’t mean those camp kids can’t be kids! Staff members should be encouraged to allow the campers to create their own schedules, if only for part of  each day. This gives them not only something to look forward to, but also the opportunity to create games, explore new ideas, and set up their own trips. There are afternoons in this camp when staff members and campers run through the rain after a swim day, have chocolate-pudding fights in the park, or just build forts at a corner of one of the nature trails.

The goal is simple—we want the kids to go home each day and say to their parents, “I had fun today.” A number of age groups work together and meet new friends, some of whom stay in contact through the year. They go home tired and dirty, full of stories for the dinner table—this is what camp is about. It’s about letting go and having fun, exploring the creativity of a child’s mind, and providing a safe environment in which to play, to learn, and to connect. When we say “It starts in parks,” we truly mean that.

No matter how exhausted the kids are, or how many times they create the “world’s largest ice cream sundae,” the smiles they give their parents when returning home at the end of each day say it all—and it begins with “Guess what I did today?”

Mathew Eberius, CPRP, is Recreation Coordinator for the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency, a non-profit provider of parks, recreation, and library services to the unincorporated communities in northern PinellasCounty in Florida. Reach him at (727) 771-6000, or .