Happy Campers

What do Chelsea Clinton, Albert Einstein, Martha Stewart and President George W. Bush have in common? They are all former campers — which just goes to show that you never know whom you might meet while roasting marshmallows around a campfire. In addition to meeting new friends, summer camp is filled with opportunities to learn new skills, hone existing talents and, in some cases, discover lifelong passions. But for the first-time camper it can also be filled with trepidation, insecurity and homesickness.
To ensure that your child’s camp experience is a positive one, it is important to select the right environment that meets the needs of both you and your future camper. With literally hundreds of summer camps across Texas, there is one for every child regardless of abilities or interests — you just have to do a little research.

“There is a camp for any child who wants to go,” says Danielle Shaw, executive director of the American Camping Association (ACA), Texoma branch. “It really depends on the goals and desired outcomes of the family.”

Whose idea is it anyway?
Not only is camping a favorite summer pastime of many Texans; for some local families it is a rite of passage. Many of the camps situated in the beautiful Texas Hill Country are steeped in tradition with generations of the same family returning year after year. For those families who have a longstanding history with a particular camp, the choice is simple —there isn’t one!
“It just never occurred to me to send them anywhere else,” says Marguerite Patterson of her decision to send four of her five children to Camp Longhorn, her own camp alma mater. “My oldest son loved it so much he went on to become a counselor.”
Regardless of how fondly you recall your own camp experience, it is important to take into account your child’s individual needs when selecting a camp. Just because a particular camp was rewarding for you doesn’t mean it will be as fulfilling for your youngster.
Camp Longhorn, for example, puts an emphasis on athletics, and that is why one of Patterson’s sons chose not to attend. “He just has totally different interests,” she explains. “He is more of a computer guy.” Experts recommend having a discussion with your child before committing to anything, to determine whether or not he or she is ready for the overnight camping experience and is doing it for the right reasons. “The child should really have a significant choice in the selection process,” says Shaw. “The child’s own involvement will help with the whole experience.” If your child has his or her heart set on a particular camp, find out why. Is it because that’s where all the other kids are going? Is it because by going there your child hopes to please you?

“We interview every camper before they come here to make sure it is 100 percent their own idea,” explains Bill

Robertson, director of Camp Longhorn’s Girl’s Camp at Inks Lake. “We make sure they understand that it will be two weeks without television, air conditioning, parents, boyfriends or girlfriends,” he adds. And if your child has never spent the night away from home, Shaw recommends encouraging a few sleepovers with friends or grandparents to test the waters. If a child can’t spend one night away from home successfully, it might be wise to wait a few years before sending that child to camp.

Where do you start?

Determining if your child is truly ready for camp is the easy part. Selecting the appropriate camp can be trickier. There are a myriad of different camps offering an assortment of activities. The earlier you begin researching the camps, the better your chances of finding a perfect fit. Traditional camps are what most people imagine when they envision the camping experience. Designed to expose campers to a smorgasbord of activities, here is where you will typically find different sports, storytelling,

campfire sing-a-longs and more. Campers are afforded the opportunity to explore interests that they might not pursue on their own and perhaps develop a new passion. Specialized camps are those that focus on one or two specific areas such as dance, theater, art, music, horseback riding or a particular sport. Children hoping to hone existing skills usually attend these camps. Within these two groups are several subcategories that must be considered before packing your trunks. First, there is the location. A first-timer or young camper might be more comfortable in a camp that is close to home, while the older, more adventuresome child might welcome the chance to be exposed to another part of the state or country. Term lengths are another important element. Depending on the camp, terms can last from one week to all summer. A short term means less time for homesickness, and, again, this is a great option for young or new campers. Long-term sessions facilitate a sense of community and allow more time for learning and developing skills. Of course, the longer the term, the higher the cost, which brings us to what is often the deciding factor for many families: the expense. According to Shaw, camp costs can run the gamut from free (for qualifying families) to the equivalent of a semester of college.

In addition to these considerations, there are other issues to evaluate, such as whether you prefer a same-sex or co-educational environment or if a faith-based organization that supports your family’s religious beliefs is important to you. By prioritizing the things that matter most to you and your child, you are on your way to narrowing down your choices.

Does accreditation matter?

Once you have made a short list of camps that meet your own personal criteria, you will want to investigate whether or not they are meeting the criteria set by the state. The department of health and services regulates Texas camps by creating, evaluating and updating camp codes. In addition to the state’s mandatory guidelines, the ACA has a voluntary accreditation program that goes above and beyond the basic requirements to encompass specific areas of programming. Counselor-to-child ratios, staff training, safety standards and program quality are part of the nearly 300 standards that a camp must meet in order to be ACA accredited. “An ACA accreditation simply provides parents with a little extra insurance and peace of mind,” says Shaw. She is quick to point out, however, that just because a camp doesn’t bear the ACA seal of approval doesn’t mean it is a substandard camp.”

“If a camp is not accredited, it doesn’t mean that they are not following the same set of standards. It simply means that the camp has volunteered to let outsiders come in and evaluate their programs against industry standards,” she explains. As a matter of fact, some of the oldest and most beloved camps in the Hill Country are not ACA accredited. Instead they are part of an organization known as the Camping Association for Mutual Progress, or C.A.M.P. Working closely with the state to ensure regulations are met, this group exists to strengthen the industry by raising health and safety standards. “It is like the ACA but more centrally located for the Texas Hill Country camps,” explains Meg Clark, president of the organization and director of Camp Waldemar. “The Hill Country camps are so supportive of one another and really work to help each other out,” she adds. “And we have a great relationship with the ACA.” Accreditation or no accreditation, the most foolproof way to ease your mind about a particular camp is to drop in for a visit. “Tour the camp if you have the ability,” encourages Clark. “See the facility and meet the people. That’s what tells the story.” If you can’t make it in person, call the camp and speak to the director. Ask questions about staff training, discipline tactics, homesickness and visitation policies, group size and any other concerns you may have. “If a camp director can’t or won’t answer simple questions about the camp’s policies, that should definitely raise a red flag,” cautions Shaw.

A lifetime of benefits

With so much to consider in the camp selection process, it is tempting to close your eyes, open the Yellow Pages and point. But just as the wrong camp can prove detrimental to your child’s overall view of the experience, finding the perfect camp can facilitate a lifetime of benefits. According to the ACA Web site, summer camps foster self-identity, confidence and leadership skills in children. “I think camp prepares children for life,” says Clark. “They learn to adapt and become comfortable with themselves and people from all different backgrounds.” Camp Longhorn’s Robertson agrees. “They learn independence and how to get along with others,” he adds. But don’t just take the director’s word for it. Felicia Baldwin, mother of two campers, says that her boys came home from summer camp more outgoing, independent and with better organizational skills. “They learn how to take care of themselves,” she observes. But perhaps the best part of finding the perfect camp is the relationships that are fostered. “When you live with a group of people day in and day out, year after year, you make lifelong friends,” says Clark.

And who who knows? Your new life-long friend might just turn out to be the future president of the United States!