I was still a relatively young camp director in 2000 when I received an e-mail from a colleague about something that was “…going to take camps by storm”. Steve Baskin had started a company called “ILuvCamp” and their big idea was to offer camps a chance to help our families feel connected to their child’s summer home by allowing photos to be securely and simply updated to our web site. Some of us had been toying with this idea already, but we had struggled with the technology and other related concerns that would have to be addressed to really make it work.
I thought long and hard about the prospect of breaking down this “wall” between camp and home, and while I spent some of the time considering the technical issues, one of the critical questions that I asked myself and others was, “Is this really a good thing?” As a lifelong camp person, an educator and youth professional, I was conflicted about taking any step that would in some way “de-campify” the program that we were working hard to maintain. The sense of independence from the real world and all media, the ability to stay in a truly immersive and self-contained environment, the benefit of detachment from home life and families for the sake of a transformative experience…these were all critical factors that needed consideration.
I ruminated for awhile, and after consulting with my colleagues and discussing it with others, we took a step that I felt would endear us to our families and help them lower their anxiety while their kids were hundreds of miles away. It felt like a very good idea at the time, and the response and appreciation from our families made the decision feel even better. As one of the first camp directors to offer this service, I was even lauded for the “vision” this move showed.
Well, that “step” was not simply a “step” at all – it was a LEAP. And the “vision” might explain why I’ve been wearing glasses for so many years. Now, over ten years later, I’m once again asking myself the same question as I did back then: “Is this really a good thing?”
Before I continue, let me use some transparency to convey how complicated this issue is for me.
Firstly, I believe it’s incumbent on each camp (including Camp Harlam) to take responsibility for making these sorts of options available, to educate families about their purpose and their administration, and to ensure that whatever service is offered is actually well executed and fulfills whatever promise is made. Over the last week (and at different points of the summer), we’ve struggled with that at Camp Harlam due to some technological, staffing and programmatic challenges. So whatever I opine after this point should be balanced against my total commitment to make sure that we own the services that we provide and improve on them at all times to make them excellent.
Secondly, I’m a camp parent who loves seeing my daughter at camp. When ILuvCamp faltered and was replaced by Ari Ackerman’s “Bunk1.com”, I again became an early-adopter. In fact, my former camp was the first in North America to offer a “Bunk1” activity where the campers actually participated fully in the photo taking and uploading, as well as the writing of newsletters and blogs. And now that my daughter, Lily, is still at that camp and they use the same Bunk1 service as Camp Harlam, I wake every day and immediately check to see whether her image is among the many that have been added to their own site. I smile (and copy/paste/print) when I find her, and I carefully crop the pictures and hang them in my office.
Of course, I’m not the only person who enjoys this opportunity. Paul Reiser, known to many by his starring role in “Mad About You”, recently wrote a blog entry reflecting on his own appreciation for these services while his son is at summer camp (use the link at the end of the post to read more):
“I confess: the minute I saw the first pictures of my son laughing radiantly in the summer sun, I got over my civil liberty concerns pretty ‘toot-suite’. I was thrilled. I loved seeing how happy my boy looked, and also having at least some sense of what he does there. It was, in fact, the only way I was going to know because whatever measly, minimalist postcard we get is ingeniously non-informative. (‘Can’t write now, gotta go. See you soon.’) And when he comes home finally, I know he’s not going to tell us anything useful then either. So these images are priceless.”
But now that I’ve shown my true empathy for the “parent side” of the issue, I want to challenge the legitimacy of this thinking a bit more.
When I get calls from families reminding me that we have yet to upload photos for a particular cabin, I’m reminded that we must be sure next year to set reasonable expectations about how often we’ll do so. When the call comes from someone who sees their child in a photo without a broad smile, not standing with their friends, not seemingly engaged in the activity at hand, wearing long sleeves on a hot day, wearing someone else’s sweatshirt, standing alone and apart from the cabin, on a different team from their best friend, not at the activity that they were promised they would do “all the time”, or even a call where a parent insists that our counselors are not paying attention to the campers’ needs because their hair has not been brushed well, I feel thankful for the feedback so that I can pass the important things along to our staff in order to always raise the level of care in our units and villages. However, I also admit to wondering (and, sometimes, even saying) “This is getting a little bit out of hand”. And, of course, as a professional, I go back to the sentiments at the start of this paragraph and earlier that will push me to make sure that we really do all that we can to set expectations for our families that are reasonable and then do our very best to execute on them.
We have uploaded over 10,000 images thus far this summer. We have allowed thousands of “Bunk Notes” (e-mails) to come in to be distributed to our kids, and hundreds upon hundreds of “Bunk Replies” to bounce back from the kids to their families. We’ve tried to encourage more letter writing when we can (and will really make a more concerted effort to make that happen in 2012), and we handle thousands of care packages every few weeks. “Yes”, we have days when the images aren’t so clear or we miss an entire unit’s photos (nobody is more frustrated than us when a ½” digital camera memory card gets misplaced at camp…of all places!), “Yes”, the delivery of those e-mails back-and-forth might be slow at times (we should be investing in the Printer Toner futures market because of how often we’ve run out…and you should see the poor printers!) and “Yes”, we know that an expectation of a return telephone call from us of less-than-24-hours is totally reasonable (and on the external communications front, we have no excuse at all for our still less-than-adequate response in some cases…it will improve!). But we are trying so very hard, and so are the camp professionals at thousands of camps all across the continent that are serving today’s families.
So here we are. The flood gates were opened back in 2000 and we did the “right thing” in trying to help our families cope with being away from their kids. We’ve tried to allow these means of communication to fill in the inevitable gaps in our families’ sense of what actually goes on up here. But maybe it’s time to rethink this. Maybe the time has come to innovate once again, Maybe we need to really invest the time and energy in devising an even more effective and less intrusive strategy for meeting our goals to provide exceptional service to those both out of – and inside of – camp.
Camp Harlam will work very hard this off-season (and still throughout the remainder of the summer) to not only ask these tougher questions, but to also work with our community to answer them. I will be excited to help forge a new balance of integrity for our camp experience with the needs of the families back home. We have so many opportunities to cover new ground and at the same time reinforce the foundational philosophy of why Jewish overnight camp can still be so amazing. Let’s see where this goes…and let’s make sure that we ask ourselves, “Is this really a good thing?” all the time, because when we stop asking the question, we may forget to check and see if the old answer still makes sense. Let’s not mess up camp just for the sake of our own professional standards and goals, but also not for the sake of the fears and challenges that we have as parents while our kids are away (myself, included). I’ll keep making sure to respond and take the BEST care of your children while they’re here, and I know you will make sure to keep pushing me – and all of us at Camp Harlam – to be the very best that we can be. Why settle for anything less? Another good question, right?
I think I got a call from someone who said there’s a new service that will allow us to live stream video from the first-person perspective of every child and staff member at camp next summer…any takers?
I hope that your weekend is restful, and I wish you all Shabbat Shalom.
As an update, we placed a new table into the Chadar Ochel (Dining Hall) tonight at our enormously spirited Song Session. I’m happy to report – despite the best efforts of our Machonakim (CITs) to pound it into oblivion – that it survived. I’m not sure what we do next, but it was a pretty cool thing to see! (For more context on this, please read my blog from last week).
Read Paul Reiser’s blog about camp at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-reiser/post_2266_b_916688.html?ir=Divorce&ref=email_share