caring for our staff

Meeting the changing needs of camp staff … before the summer

By Amy Bram, Stacey Smalley, Ben Portnoy, Jacqui Kalin, Drea Lear,
Karen Garelik, and Miriam Loren

As camp leadership professionals, when we think about caring for our staff at camp, we typically start with orientation. Before that – in applications, interviews, acceptances & paperwork – we are focused on first impressions, assessments & communication. This is for good reason; we want to be sure our staff understand the agency/camp mission, have a good sense of the work ahead, are a good fit for the community, have the skill set for the role, and are legally able to begin work. Once they arrive at camp, we can focus on buy-in, education, group bonding, morale boosting and all the rest of the summer camp staff experience.

The circumstances we all find ourselves in today- muddling, struggling, and adapting through the pandemic with good moments and bad- dictate the need to reexamine the staff lifecycle before camp begins. It behooves us to consider what our staff members are experiencing with a focus on their mental, emotional and social health (MESH) needs. It begins with conversations (town hall format or 1:1), staff applications and interviews in which we ask them to think about and share how their lives have been impacted by the pandemic. It is important that we are present and non-judgmental as we listen to their answers and respond with empathy and support. This level of inquiry and response is beneficial throughout the process. Staff will need regular touch points to know they are cared for now and that they will be cared for this summer. We could write another article about caring for staff after summer and looking at summer feedback as a gateway to year-round staff engagement (if this one is successful, maybe we will).

Maimonides teaches us that “the soul is subject to health and disease, just as is the body…” and Youth Mental Health First Aid teaches us that the primary protective factor against mental health struggles is the presence of at least one trusted adult. Camp is the ideal place to combine these two powerful teachings. Here is a sampling of concrete steps that can help foster the trust and care that will be crucial for a successful environment at this unique time:

  • Help all staff look inside themselves to assess their own readiness for camp
  • Change your process to allow for a “letter of intent” prior to signing a contract if someone is wary
  • Open a conversation that helps staff develop their own conclusions about the strength of reason behind new guidelines that will be hard to follow
  • Create a structure to introduce staff to each other well before summer
  • Develop teams and relationships that people can lean on as summer draws near and (perhaps) anxiety rises about what “the bubble” truly entails.

By acknowledging what is happening (name it to tame it) you can be an even more powerful force for good than you already are. Tangible resources are a key component to implementing new ideas and so we wish to share our work with you. The authors of this article, members of the AIJC (Association of Independent Jewish Camps) MESH working group, designed a tool to help you think through this topic and apply changes that will benefit you, your staff, your campers and your camp: 10 Tips, Questions, and Considerations – Staff MESH. This year has been an opportunity for all of us to audit our systems. We are looking forward to making this an annual process as we continually strive to support our staff.

Amy Bram at Association of Independent Jewish Camps (AIJC), Rose Savage Levenson at Camp Bob Waldorf, Stacey Smalley at Eli and Bessie Cohen Camps, Ben Portnoy at Camp Tevya, Jacqui Kalin & Drea Lear at Herzl Camp, Karen Garelik at Camp Alonim and Miriam Loren at Camp Yavneh