You Can't Teach Passion - An Interview with Nick Martinez

The Summer Camp Society Interviews. This interview is the eighth of a series from Sarah and Jack interviewing change making camp professionals and sharing their advice because great leaders make great camps

Nick Martinez

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Nick is the executive director at YMCA Camp Abe Lincoln. He is as gregarious as he is hilarious, and that made him a great camp counselor. What has made him a great leader at camp has been his compassion, commitment to constant improvement, and ability to create lifelong relationships. His passion is unmatched and is contagious for everyone that is lucky enough to meet him.

How did you get started in camping?

Mine was kind of a funny story, so it was my sophomore year of college when I worked at Camp Abe Lincoln.  It was because my freshman year I went home for the summer.  And when you’re used to doing your own thing, whenever you want to do it, and then you go home and there’s all these rules you have to follow, it’s not as fun.  So I ended up spending my whole summer after my freshman year always working--I was never home for that simple fact!  I didn’t want to be at home.  

My sophomore year I didn’t have anything going on.  I just happened to put my name down for Camp Abe Lincoln in the spring.  They called me up a couple of weeks before the summer starts--”Hey, we’re trying to fill up some spots we have open, are you interested?”  I come on out, they show me the camp, this is pretty cool!  Right then and there, they interview me and said, “The job is yours if you want it.”  No application or anything--I thought, “You’re going to let me play AND you’re going to pay me?  I’m down.”  

I spent the summer working at camp and looking back at it now it was probably weird how the camp was run but in that summer I probably had some of the best times of my life as a young adult personally and then the fact that I was able to have an effect on children and the staff as well kind of made me feel awesome.

At the end of the summer they have a staff banquet and the staff votes on the Spirit of Camp Abe Lincoln Award and I ended up getting that along with someone else--wow, I didn’t realize the impact I had--I kind of figured I was a role model to the kids--but to get that from my coworkers that said, man, you were everything that we look for in leadership and looking out for the kids--man, that’s awesome!  

Talk about your transition from camp counselor to camp leader.

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I went back to school, changed my major from nursing to wellness and education and did everything I could to work at camp and kinda didn’t look back, didn’t hesitate.  I ended up doing my internship at camp.  I graduated, and then Zach Klipsch [Camp Abe Lincoln executive director at the time] pulled me aside at the beginning of the summer and told me the program director was quitting--”Your name popped up, be the interim for the summer. I’ll support you in anyway I can--and sure enough, I did a good job, got the job offer and signed on the dotted line at the end of the summer and became the new prog director for Camp Abe Lincoln.”

Obviously Zach helped move camp forward in the right direction; changed it from a floundering camp to a successful camp. He changed the whole culture of the camp in a couple of years.  He did a great job with it and got recruited to Eberhart.  So again, it was “Nick, this is your job to lose” in 2014 and I became the interim executive director.  By the end of the summer, you’re the guy for this--I got the job.

What is something about you that makes you good at your job?

I’ve heard this a lot just through other people and never really considered it, but I think the biggest thing is my passion--you can’t teach that.  I think the love I have for the camp and, it feels weird saying that, but it truly is wanting to see everybody that comes to the camp be successful whether it’s one day, one event, one week, one year.  

Everyone who comes through those doors--I wish for the best for them--the love, the spark in their eyes, their ability to say this camp is my home away from home.  

The passion I have for people to fall in love with camp is probably my biggest drive, my skill.  

I think I have a pretty good way of connecting with donors and parents about the experience available at camp.  I feel like I’m a pretty good storyteller, which is important as well.  It’s one thing to be numbers-driven to show how successful you are, but if you’re not passionate or can’t weave a good story, it’s hard to get people to buy in.

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What is something that was really tough for you at the beginning?

Definitely a challenge is that Camp Abe Lincoln is all I know.  I have no experience whatsoever at any other camp or any other programming.  My first year as a supervisor was hard because I was a coordinator and the year before--these people that I’m now supervising were people I would go out and have drinks with or do things on our off time.  As a professional, not that I couldn’t do it, but there was definitely a line that I couldn’t cross.

A lot of these people were your best friends and you have relationships with outside of camp, so it does become difficult.  There wasn’t too much of a transition from “Hey, you’re a college student this summer and at the end of the summer you’re a professional,.”  It was a very hard transition to go from not really having too much responsibility--only worrying about yourself to now you’re in charge of 50, 60 staff and hundreds of kids per week.  

Now every decision you make has an impact not just for that week but for the summer.  For me, at that time, there really wasn’t a circle of people I could call up and say, “Hey, I’m going through this right now, can you help?”  There wasn’t that network of people that first summer that I could count on until I went to the MACC.  Granted, Zach was an exceptional supervisor and mentor, so he helped as best as he could, but it was definitely a major learning curve.

What is something you are working on getting better at right now, or learning about right now?

For me personally, I love trying new things at camp on the programmatic side of things.  The goal is every summer to come up with something new the kids are going to do that becomes a tradition or something long-lasting, but as an executive director, that shouldn’t be what I focus on all the time.

So that’s something I’ve learned as I continue through the years, that my focus is now “How do I make this camp the best camp possible for kids?”  A lot of that is something a lot of us talk about--the sociology aspect of camp and even the psychology of camp, that everything we do has a mental, physical and emotional impact on children.  So, something I’m looking at even more and more now is the science of how people interact and how people work, just to have an idea of what is the purpose of the program we are doing and how does it affect the children mentally, physically and emotionally, so the science of camp is something I’m learning more about now.

What is a good piece of advice you once received from someone else?

Something my mother always told me is that you gotta work hard.  A lot of people, there’s that thing, “work smarter not harder.”  A lot of times we do that, and I don’t want to say we become complacent or lazy, but in order to be able to relate to the staff or be able to relate to other people, sometimes you do have to roll up your sleeve and get into the thick of it.  

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No matter how successful or how big you get, you have to remember where you come from, even if that means taking off your nice shoes and getting dirty with us, that will keep you grounded.  Hopefully as I continue to make camp bigger and better for our community and our area, I don’t forget that what I put my staff through, I either have to do myself or have done myself--and sometimes repeating and getting my hands dirty as well is important.

What is your advice for someone who is a new camp pro?

I try to do a good job of this myself--seek out the people who are great at what you’re looking to do.  A great example: YMCA Camp Widjiwagan in Nashville has one of the best day camp programs in the country.  As we tried to improve on our day camp program, they were one of the first people I called up to see what makes their program great.  So seeking out those people who are great at what you want to be great at is the best recommendation I can give anybody.

And you find that people are willing to share?

Yeah, and not just the Y.  Anybody in camping. I don’t remember who I had this conversation with, but you never hear of Ford, Chevy and Dodge coming together and sharing all their secrets.  They never say, “Hey, this is what we’re doing to get the best mileage” or “Just found out the best tech for vehicles, it’s ours to share”, but in the camping world that’s what you hear.  Camping people are excited to share their successes and the more people that can use their successes, the more excited they get because that means we are moving forward as an industry.

What’s something outside of camp that would be fun for us to learn about you?

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During my younger years, I was into just about everything powersports.  Powerlifting, rugby--I was for three or four years after I started as the program director, that’s what I would do.  While camp is great, many of us live on site, and spending time with the same group of people endlessly for a summer sometimes it becomes something of a nuisance.  To have a different circle of friends that don’t talk about skits or songs or this little kid that behaves this way or any of the camp stuff, and kind of distracts you from [camp], is amazing.  

And to be able in my case to just tackle people and be physical with people and not have to talk to them the next day and say, “Hey, sorry about that!” is pretty cool as well!  I was very active in that sense.  To this day, those relationships are still strong for me.  

I’m also a volunteer for Big Brothers Big Sisters; I’ve been doing it for five years now.  I have a little who is going to be turning 12 this year.  It’s pretty cool to see someone like that year round, and see how much growth I’ve been able to attribute through my mentoring as well is pretty fun as well.

What keeps you going?

The culture that Zach left behind is part of that.  The four core values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility: making those a foundation for the camp experience  We’ve gone from making camp a fun place to be at and a safe place to be at to now, more than ever, a place where character development happens.  

Our goal is that when kids come to camp, they leave better people to make a better world.  The more kids that we can teach to be caring, honest, respectful and responsible, the better the world can be.

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