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Happy campers

Humane summer camps staffed by qualified counselors create enriching experiences

From Animal Sheltering magazine May/June 2016

Shelter dog Pike was a big hit with kids at the Berkshire Humane Society’s summer Camp Humane program.Participants in San Diego Humane Society’s Animal Adventure Camp make friends and get some feline perspective in group activities.At Berkshire Humane Society in Pittsfield, Mass., junior volunteers called “Humane Heroes” lead small groups of third- through sixth-graders in summer camp crafts and activities, such as this “Humane Knot” to show the link between the Earth, plants and animals.During camp, Jamison Ehlers enjoys socializing a rat in the care of San Diego Humane Society.

When 6-year-old Brianna met Truman, a collie mix, at the San Diego Humane Society (SDHS) Animal Adventure Camp, her first instinct was to stiffen up. She’d never met a dog and was generally scared of animals.

But when Brianna’s camp counselor handed her the leash, her canine partner stood calmly. As she crossed the room, he followed politely by her side, frequently sending her approving glances.

Eight years later, Brianna is an SDHS volunteer who fundraises with her whole family for its annual walk. She refers to her first visit to the shelter as one of the best days of her life—a life she can’t imagine without the sweetness of dogs.

“Camps are what summer dreams are made of—for both kids and adults,” says Stephanie Itle-Clark, director of learning at The HSUS’s Humane Society Academy. A former middle school teacher, Itle-Clark has seen an increasing number of programs at animal welfare organizations address kids’ broad educational needs. “Many camp activities include guided interactions with animals,” she says, “and are designed around children’s fascination with animals and to help them overcome any fears.”

Brianna’s story is a perfect example of how shelter-based camp programs are not only a high-impact way to educate youth; they connect whole families to organizations.

“You see the kids dragging parents through the adoption gallery and shopping in our store,” says Stacey Zeitlin, senior director of community engagement at SDHS, who’s overseen its camp program for 13 years. Zeitlin says stories of campers like Brianna—getting their whole families involved, growing up through the program and becoming volunteers or even employees—are common.

Twenty-six miles up the coast at Helen Woodward Animal Center (HWAC) in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., education manager Heather Disher sees it, too. “Our best camp instructors started as campers or junior volunteers,” she says.

The center is a firm believer in the power of humane education; the camp was its first program 45 years ago, and it has grown steadily over the years.

Of all the program’s successes, Disher is proudest of the excitement inspired in her campers—an enthusiasm that goes home with them. “I love hearing the parents come back and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I had no idea about (blank) that my kids told me,” she says, “or ‘[My child re-enacted] critter camp at home and told me to be gentle and pet with two fingers like we do with small animals at camp.’”

While camp programs may come with an initial price tag—mostly associated with hiring staff—ultimately they have potential to generate significant net income. SDHS’s camp, for example, grossed nearly $100,000 last summer. The society had over 500 children participate in its program at a fee competitive with local YMCA camps ($220 for a week of camp, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily). HWAC’s camp, which follows a similar schedule and fee structure, had a record 1,500 campers in 2015, bringing in close to $200,000 in net income.

The Power of Good People

What’s the recipe for a great camp? There’s a lot to organize, including space in your building, a curriculum of engaging activities and promotion. But perhaps the most important ingredient is the people you choose.

To get the word out about your camp, look to media aimed at parents. One large school district in Helen Woodward’s service area, for example, has a website managed by Peachjar that sends school and extracurricular activity information to parents digitally—and it has served as a platform for the center to spread the word about its camp and other youth programs. If your local newspapers run springtime special sections devoted to summer day camps, advertising in them is another well-targeted approach.

The people working at your camp are crucial to its success. Although volunteers are a tremendous asset to camp programs, it can be a challenge to find someone to give full-time hours to leading the camp for an entire summer, providing consistency and making necessary adjustments to camp curriculum over time. And if you have a humane educator or community outreach person on staff, it’s ideal to reserve that position for managing program logistics (including communication with parents) while the counselors work one-on-one with the children, teaching the curriculum.

How do you begin to find temporary staff for the important role of leading youth in daily activities tied to your mission? First, think about qualifications. “You want educators that parents can trust leaving their kids with for the day, and it’ll be an educational program,” says Zeitlin. “You also want a fun, camp-like environment as opposed to being like school all summer.”

Fun, according to Zeitlin, begins with a safe environment—safe for the animals, safe for the children and safe for each other. “It’s a fun environment when the classroom isn’t out of control,” she says.

First, seek candidates with classroom management skills and experience. Your search can begin as early as the winter before camp. Parenting or baby-sitting experience isn’t necessarily enough; you want someone whose skills include managing large groups of kids (think camping groups as large as 15). Teachers on summer break, retired teachers and college junior or senior education majors who’ve done student teaching or camp work are prime candidates.

Look for candidates who have experience with your programs’ target ages.

Education-savvy counselors are trained in the three domains of learning—cognitive (thinking), affective (emotional) and psychomotor (physical), or head, heart and body—and know how to meet the different learning styles of children. “They’re well-equipped to lead kids in practicing empathy and citizenship, activating the three domains and reducing ‘summer slide’ or the loss in the learning trajectory that takes place in the summer,” says Itle-Clark. (Parents will love you for that!)

Post your job announcement in the usual places, such as your website and job search engines. Do this early—a few months in advance of your camp, if possible—to allow enough time to gather a wide pool of candidates and fully vet potential hires.

If you run school-based programs, also send your announcement to teachers whose classrooms you have visited. (Hiring these teachers is great, because after teaching camp all summer, there’s a good chance they’ll use the humane lessons they learned when they return to their regular students in the fall.) To reach college candidates, ask local teaching colleges to post the job announcement, and ask to share it on their social media accounts.

To set your pay rate, find out what other local seasonal camps, such as YMCA camps, offer. Although nonprofits may be known for lower salaries, do your best to match other camps’ pay rates.

According to Disher, “Being competitive with other, related jobs in [the] area is the only way you’ll get quality people with experience.” To research your area’s wages, check online job search engines like Indeed, or check Craigslist under a search for “camp counselor” or “camp instructor.”

When you get to the interviewing phase, consider asking candidates to do a mock youth presentation. And keep in mind the personal qualities that counselors should have. Being with kids for a full day for several weeks on end can be very tiring, so look for candidates with high energy and lots of passion—someone who grabs you with engaging activities.

Of course, a love of animals is also critical. While most camp managers agree that animal handling is not a must-have skill, counselors have to want to be in the shelter environment, be excited about animal welfare and want to handle animals, if that’s what the job calls for. This includes all the animals in your curriculum, so watch for those who are put off by the idea of holding a rat if it’s included in your curriculum.

Be sure to verify your candidates’ backgrounds and credentials. This is particularly important for those working with children under 18. Records to consider checking are local and federal criminal histories, national identity verification and driving records.

It’s also good practice to verify past employment. Both SDHS and HWAC also perform Live Scan fingerprinting, an electronic method that is required in California and compares candidates’ fingerprints to those in state and federal databases. Finally, consider requiring first aid and CPR certification for your counselors—some states mandate it for those running a camp program.

During the screening process, let your instincts guide you. “Don’t just hire the first people you meet,” says Disher. “Trust your gut—if they seem somewhat hesitant or don’t seem like they’d be the best fit, go with someone else.”

When you find the right person, get ready to watch happy campers deepen their understanding of animals as they build a lifelong connection to their community animal shelter.

About the Author

Heidi P. Colonna, a certified humane education specialist, is a writer based in Western Massachusetts. She is a former manager of education and training projects at The Humane Society of the United States.