What I learned about running camp from skiing, and why you're going to crush it this summer

When I graduated college, my now wife and I moved to Zephyr Cove, a small town near South Lake Tahoe, California. Our plan was simple. We wanted to see the Western part of the country, ski every day, and essentially pass time until the following summer so we could return to our home camp for another summer.

There was just one little hitch, for me. I had only skied 3 times before we picked up and moved out there. But I went in, bought some skis and boots, and got to work. I picked it up slowly, and was ready to proudly display my skills to a pair of visiting friends.

We ambitiously took them to a tree covered run in a less trafficked portion of the mountain, and I promptly made a fool of myself. I kept getting tangled in bushes, scraped against the branches of trees, and upended by hidden stumps. When I finally made it down to where my friends were waiting, I made some self-deprecating comment, and my friend Nick shared a piece of wisdom that back-country skiers have been sharing to relative newbies since the beginning of time:

"You're focusing on the trees too much. Your skis will follow your focus. Don't look at the trees, look at the space between the trees."

I processed this as we rode the lift back up, and tried the run again. I still hit a few branches, but did markedly better. By the end of the day, I had a few runs where I didn't have to stop a single time.

This experience had a profound effect on me. The value of having a wide range of experiences, to me, has always been that occasionally you'll brush up against some principle that winds up being applicable across all of life, as opposed to just the thing you are doing.

So how do we focus on the spaces between the trees at camp?

Let's do it.

The trees and the spaces between the trees at summer camp

When I took my first full time job as a year round summer camp director, I inherited a rather tricky situation. The camp was in serious financial trouble, was short staffed, and there was a fair amount of bad will among camp supporters who perceived that the board had badly bungled the huge transition of moving on from the previous directors and bringing me on board.

On top of that, we had all of the other issues that face camps in transition - campers were worried that everything would change (for the worse), some big donors were boycotting the camp out of loyalty to the previous administration, and plenty of people simply thought the camp had "been sold" or "was closing." And did I mention that I started working at camp on March 1st, and that the board (who had run the camp on a basically volunteer basis since the previous November) hadn't distributed any brochures or camp materials yet? That no camp dates were listed on the camp's website? How about the fact that the house we had moved into had a leaky roof, and that water was semi-routinely pouring into our linen closet?

Yeah, it was hard. After a couple short weeks I was already feeling a little bit burnt out and disillusioned. I had my dream job, and it wasn't working. I was told we wanted 200 camper weeks for the summer, but that we could "survive" on 150. What would have happened if we were at some number less than that? I can only imagine - my family had just sold its house and moved 6 hours to get to camp, and weren't totally aware that things were quite so dire when we did so.

As of April 1st we had one camper week registered and paid for. One. I called an old friend and colleague of mine, Brian Frick, who had been the program director when I became a camp counselor, and who had become the Associate for Camp and Conference Ministries for the Presbyterian Church, USA. I didn't want to come right out and say I was scared to death that I'd be the director of a closing camp, but I started to probe for any tricks of the trade.

Hundreds of plants donated from local nurseries that would have been garbage otherwise.
Hundreds of plants donated from local nurseries that would have been garbage otherwise.

At one point, I was complaining about the poor results I was getting from reaching out to new churches to try and recruit campers, when he stopped me. He explained that the best places to recruit campers if you're in Christian camping is actually churches that have a history of supporting camp and sending campers. They already trust you - they're an asset. Plus, it's a lot more energizing and less discouraging. You can still try to take on new churches, he said, but start by focusing 60% of your time on the churches that support you most, 30% on the ones who sort of support you, and 10% on new ones.

I scrolled through the previous year's enrollments, and found that a local church nearby had sent more than 20 campers. I called them, and when they knew we were "definitely running camp" that year, they wound up sending 20+ once again.

When I hung up the phone, I heard Nick's voice echoing in my head again.

"You see? You were focusing on the trees. Your skis follow where your focus goes."

I was being held hostage by the "trees" surrounding me as I took on a very difficult task. Supporters who had bailed before ever getting to know me? Trees. Campers who had made other plans because they thought camp was closing? More trees. 1 camper week signed up with 3 months til the first day of camp? A whole damned forest.

But like standing at the top of a ski run and being overwhelmed by the thicket before you, running camp (even in the hardest of times) is only possible if we maneuver from opportunity to opportunity, and leave the trees behind us.

So, I went over the white-board in my office and made two lists: Trees, and spaces between trees.

Converting a run down old barn into a chicken coop.
Converting a run down old barn into a chicken coop.

Some supporters are boycotting camp (trees). Some supporters are STILL supporting camp, even with things being crazy (space between trees).

I called these supporters on the phone, and bared my soul. One of them donated enough money to entirely re-roof our house. It was incredibly touching.

Basically no one was registered for camp (trees). I had a list of everyone who had come to camp in the previous 5 years (space between trees).

I started making phone calls. I can recall talking to one mother in particular who was insistent that their family would never support camp again. Her daughter had been crushed when the previous directors left, and was not going to set foot back on camp soil for loyalty reasons. I told them I understood, and that I probably would have done the same thing when I was her age. I asked if I could come meet them in person and at least explain what camp would be, and explain how boycotting camp wasn't actually hurting the people they were mad at. I drove an hour, met them for breakfast, and 2 weeks later she signed up for camp. 6 months ago, I wrote that young woman a college recommendation.

Other calls worked out too - way better than I would have imagined. I spent whole days just calling people on the phone and introducing myself. As an introvert, this was terrifying to me. But our camper numbers started to grow, and I found being vulnerable very empowering.

The camp was broke (trees).

But, the camp was located on a hundred year old facility filled with all sorts of odds and ends (space between the trees).

Converting invasive knotweed into a moving bush.
Converting invasive knotweed into a moving bush.

Our program budget for the first summer was less than $200. So, I invited my brother up to camp, and we realized we had to get creative. Knowing that we couldn't spend any money, we scoured the internet (and our own imaginations) for creative, affordable ideas. We developed dozens of water-based games (we had a lake, afterall), and brainstormed on things we could do for campers that they'd value a lot that we didn't have to pay much for. It was in these discussions that the first seeds of what would eventually become the foundation for the Stomping Ground were sown - the thing kids value most in many cases is freedom and autonomy, and if we could treat them the way we want to be treated, they might not care if we didn't have a bunch of jet skis.

We also had a lot of land, and a lot of old buildings. I've sprinkled in what we did with some of that in pictures throughout this post, but we repurposed old wood for a chicken coop, turned up an old field and planted a garden with all donated plants, and started digging up invasive knotweed and using it for all sorts of shenanigans. In short, we just needed to get creative with what we had, instead of focusing on what we didn't have.

Staff members were resistant to change (trees), and many weren't coming back on principle (more trees).

But! Some people loved camp so much they were holding their nose and coming back anyway (space between the trees).

When I had talks with these staff members, I was pretty intimidated at first. Eventually it struck me, though - this camp was home to these staff members. They weren't rooting for me to fail. They were just scared that I would. Working with them, I was able to suss out what seemed like the "core" of the camp experience - the unchangeable traditions that are inextricably linked to running that camp authentically. Pudding on Wednesdays? Check. Camp Outrageous? Definitely. I assured them that we wouldn't touch any of those things.

But as passionate lifers, they also had a list of things that they felt could be better. I took each of their suggestions seriously, and consulted with each of them about any potential changes. We eventually came to the conclusion that, at first, we would only ADD to the camp experience, and take nothing away. We wouldn't add anything that would directly take away from the core of camp. That first summer, we added a ton of new programming without pushing aside anything that they loved.

So what happened?

As of the first day of camp, we had registered just 163 camper weeks. So, we weren't going to close after the summer camp season (yay?), but we were hardly thriving. This likely meant no programming improvements for the following year (trees), no money freed up for marketing (trees), and more uncertainty for my family and the board (more trees).

Then a funny thing happened. On the last day of the first session of camp, I was talking to a young man who I had gotten to know a great deal. He said he was bummed that he'd have to wait a year to come back. I made a joke to the effect of, "Well, as you saw this week, slots are still available for this summer"! His mom overheard and said, really? There was a trickling effect, and something like 5-6 of the campers from that week (of just 17 kids) decided to sign up for a future week.

Water fun! Cheap and spontaneous.
Water fun! Cheap and spontaneous.

We made a formal practice out of trying to recruit campers who had already come to camp for a week by simply telling them A) how much we enjoyed getting to know them, and B) that we had spots available. We told them when they could do something about it (when their parents were coming to pick them up), and many of them did. We had gotten in the habit of looking for the space between the trees, and a huge one had opened up in front of us.

By the end of the summer we had 207 camper weeks in total. My board told me we had at least an extra year of runway based on that total, and that we had freed up some money to strategically deploy for marketing and programming for the next year.

By the end of the following summer we had 360+ camper weeks, and the camp was no longer in peril.

But it wasn't for lack of obstacles.

Camp is hard, I know

Listen - I know running camp is hard. I know that this time of year is particularly terrifying. I know that almost everyone reading this post wishes camper numbers were higher right now. I know that trees are flying up around us faster than we can dodge them.

But I also know that there are spaces between those trees, and I know you're just the person your camp needs to find them. For your organization, YOU are very likely a space between the trees your organization faces.

And, yes, you might still hit a tree every once in a while. Or more than every once in a while. And some trees will be trickier to navigate around than others, or take more time. One tremendous difference in running camp now is that we have huge online communities to handle this sort of thing - whether it's the Summer Camp Professionals group, or our own community inside of Go Camp Pro - and tremendous resources to point out the spaces between the trees that have already been discovered.

So wherever you are on your camp planning journey for this year, I wish you well. I'm on the slopes with you, and I know that one way or another, I'll see you on the bottom. And if we get some scrapes along the way? Well, we'll just grab a lift and try it again.

Happy Skiing.