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Embracing the Hero’s Journey – Camp Experience

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In the last post I wrote about the journey a first time camper takes and how it correlates with the structure of the Hero’s Journey.

How can a camp take this idea of a Hero’s Journey and create a better camp experience?

Stage 1 – Ordinary World

Kids crave adventure. They want to experience new things. They want opportunities to use their imagination. Camp is the perfect solution to their wants (and needs) when it comes to an adventurous, personal journey. As camp professionals we should use this idea to entice kids who have never been to camp, who would benefit greatly from the experience, to come and be a part of our world.

I hope that you, as a camp professional, believe in what camp has to offer, which is fun, challenges, friendships, independence, community, responsibility, outdoor education, encouragement, role modeling, leadership opportunities, a safe place to face fears, magic, new experiences, and much, much more. If you don’t believe in the power of camp, you won’t be able to make it the kind of place that can change lives.

Stage 2 – The Call to Adventure

This is the key to your next marketing endeavor. Create a Call to Adventure in your promotions. Possible first time campers need to be convinced that camp is a journey that is full of adventure and fun. They need to know that it is a better experience then staying home and playing video games. They need to be made aware that your camp is more adventurous, has better mentors, is a (emotionally) safer place then other camps – that it is a journey they will want to take.

Kids cannot answer the Call to Adventure if you never offer it. Make sure kids know about your camp.

  • Create apparel that current and former campers will wear regularly at home.
  • Create engaging videos that are viral worthy.
  • Get your brochures out in the world.
  • Make sure your website is adventurous to explore and is internet search worthy.
  • Create a blog that has posts written by  a variety of camp staff.

Stage 3 – Refusal of the Call

Kids will “Refuse the Call to Adventure” when fear is stronger than desire.

The fear kids, who have never been to camp, experience is the fear of the unknown. Potential first-time campers need to be placed at ease before they accept the Call. Many times parents or friends take on this role, however, camps can do their part.

Create a first time camper video, a ‘What to Expect’ video.

Another tactic would be to have a page on your website that is a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page for first time campers. Most camps’ FAQ pages (if they have one) is geared towards the parent.

Why not have two FAQ pages – one for parents, one for campers.

Step 4 – Crossing the Threshold

Lets say the first time camper has Answered the Call. Once they have registered make sure they feel welcome and don’t have the feeling of backing out at the last minute.

  • Send campers a link to a welcome video.
  • Send out a First Time Campers Welcome Packet (or better yet, a Hero’s Journey Camp Packet).

Once the campers arrive have first time campers attend a New Camper Orientation.

  • They can connect with other first time campers,
  • get a tour of camp,
  • learn some techniques that will help them have a positive experience
  • and possibly be assigned a return camper buddy.

Having an older camper buddy system is a great way to give return campers a chance to practice leadership, learn responsibility, give back, etc.

Stage 5 – Meeting with the Mentor

Before they arrive at camp we want to make sure our staff are prepared for first time campers. They should have the tools/skill-set to deal with homesickness, friendship building, positive encouragement, bully prevention, etc.

When training your staff have a first time campers packet. The camp counselors that will be with the youngest groups will need to be experts at this, but all camp counselors will most certainly have at least a few first time campers.

Camp counselors WILL make or break the camp experience for kids. They have the most influential role at camp when it comes to the campers. They need to be aware of the responsibility they carry. They can change lives of campers and they can permanently scar them as well.

Stage 6 – Test, Allies and Enemies

TESTS – Camp is inherently full of tests and trials – fitting into the group, swim tests, team-building, high ropes, hitting the archery target, camp competitions, being away from home, creating a worthwhile craft, acting in a campfire skit, learning to kayak, and on and on.

As a camp we should have mementos for our campers that will remind them of their successes at camp. These mementos will also be shared with friends and family at home.

Mementos can be…

  • pictures
  • collages
  • wooden tokens
  • beads
  • badges

ALLIES – Allies will come out of the woodwork, hopefully, at camp…from bunk-mates or group members to activity instructors and unit leaders.

During staff training all staff should be made aware that they are Allies of the campers and should act that way. They are there to help campers be successful on their journey. Group counselors should facilitate the Ally-making within their groups, doing their best to create a group that is encouraging and helpful to each other. Of course, many times there will be enemies that will make it hard to create that positive group dynamic.

ENEMIES – Enemies are a part of life. Bullying, teasing, theft, indifference are all traits of an “Enemy”. All campers are affected by these, especially first time campers. When this happens camp staff should be able to deal with it swiftly and effectively, but the damage may have been done already. This is where the counselor (or other camp staff) can explain to the first time camper that was “hurt” by this behavior that he or she is on a Hero’s Journey and that Enemies are a part of that journey. Explain that it’s how the Hero/Heroine deals with the behavior that matters. Courage, steadfastness, perseverance, forgiveness, strength and a positive attitude are all ways to deal with the behavior of Enemies. What are others?

Stage 7 – Approach to the Innermost Cave

The greatest fear of a camper can be anything from swimming in the pool to being away from home. It can be the height of the rock wall or the bullying of another camper. It can be the fear of not fitting in or the fear of going on stage during skit night. Whatever the greatest fear of a camper is they will face their Ultimate Test in their Innermost Cave.

As camp staff that are looking to create the best possible experience for our campers, it is our responsibility to find out what each first time camper’s innermost fear about camp is. Counselors should have time everyday to sit down with their group and talk. This is a time for campers to share their feelings. A good ropes course facilitator is a master at this. They ask questions that get campers to share their feelings and then they explore those feelings and look for solutions that can be used in everyday life.

Through specific questions a good camp counselor can make campers feel comfortable enough to either share their thoughts, feeling and concerns within the group or at least get them to share that insight with the counselor privately at another time. Either way we cannot help our Hero (first-time camper) through their camp Journey unless we know about the monster in their Innermost Cave. If a counselor can get the whole group to share, then they will see that their fears and concerns are shared by others, and this, in and of itself, is powerful. For a first time camper to know that they are not the only one with fears and apprehension – it’s a Wow! moment.

Stage 8 – The Ordeal

Now that it’s time for the first time camper to face their fear, our Hero will need the help of his or her Mentor (camp counselor) and Allies (other camp staff and group peers). You’ll want to make sure that the camper successfully faces their fear. As we know most fears at camp are perceived fears.

Let’s take the rock climbing wall as our example. With climbing ropes that are strong enough to suspend a small car and well-trained staff belaying the campers, the danger of being 40 feet off the ground is perceived. That doesn’t mean that a camper’s fear isn’t real or isn’t valid. Our responsibility is to get the camper’s Allies to encourage our Hero and to mentor them to successfully face that fear. Take the challenge in small steps. You wouldn’t send a person in to fight a dragon without proper gear and training. Only well-trained and equipped knights should challenge dragons. So let’s prep, gear and lead the Hero to success.

Step 1 – Talk to your first time camper about courage and how courage is doing something despite the fear Heroes feel. Let them know that it is okay to be nervous and afraid, that it’s what they do when they are feeling that fear that makes them courageous or not, makes them a Hero or not.

Step 2 – Gear them up. Get that harness and helmet on our camper and show them that these pieces of gear are part of their armor. It’s there to keep them safe.

Step 3 – Introduce them to their new Ally, the belayer. This person is their support, their partner and they will make sure nothing happens to them. That is their sole focus.

Step 4 – Lead them to the Threshold of their Innermost Cave, the rock wall.

Step 5 – Encourage them to climb. Hold by hold ask them to climb one more step. If after all is said and done and the camper just cannot bring themselves to go any further see if you can arrange another time to come back and try again. It can take multiple times for campers to complete a fearful task.

Step 6 – Celebrate the success the camper had. If they made it to the top then go crazy. However, if the camper may not have made it all the way up, keep in mind that they did cross the Threshold of the Cave, and that is a big deal – one worth celebrating.

I didn’t go on my first real roller-coaster until I was 13 or so. I would go to Six Flags and stare at the coasters trying to will myself to ride. Finally, on one trip to the amusement park friends of mine encouraged me to go, and I felt that the time was right to face my fear. I loved it! I have loved roller coasters ever since. Sometimes it takes a while before we are ready to overcome our fears, but with the right set of circumstances (the proper Mentor, a group of Allies and the right mindset) we can not only cross the Threshold of our Innermost Cave, but we can go all the way through and touch the back wall as well.

Stage 9 – Reward

Celebrations are an important part of the experience. Celebrations can be a number of different things:

  • Applause and cheers
  • The presentation of a token of accomplishment
  • Recognition in front of the camp
  • A party
  • Dancing around for a few minutes or more
  • Group hugs
  • A specific and unique type of celebration for your camp (i.e. a cabin group donning viking helmets and running through camp chanting the camper’s name).

In a group discussion you could even have each camper speak about their greatest camp fear. Then explain to them that the goal of that week is to conquer those fears. The fears can be posted on the cabin wall or on the counselor’s clipboard. Whenever a camper faces his or her fear the group knows that there will be a celebration. As a group they will come together to make sure that happens. Let them know that if all the fears have been faced by the entire group a celebration feast like no other will be the reward.

Of course, there are other rewards:

  • Tokens
  • The camper’s picture on the Wall of Heroes and Heroines
  • A t-shirt that reads “I did it! I am a Hero of Camp _________”
  • A goblet with an engraving or etching of the words ‘Goblet of Champions’.
  • The right to sign the Hero board.
  • Recognition on the camp’s Hero website page or Facebook page.
  • A specific bead to be placed on their camp necklace.

Stage 10 – The Road Back

It’s the last day of camp and now is the time to “debrief”.

Counselors should take this opportunity to speak with their group about

  • what they have accomplished,
  • the friends they have made
  • and the changes they may have gone through.

This is the time to tell them that they should not forget what this experience has taught them, that they should take these experiences and what they have learned and combine that with the best parts of themselves from the Ordinary World, returning home a better person, one who can be a Hero – even at home. This is the time to talk about and review what a Hero really is, what it means to be heroic.

Stage 11 – Resurrection

Campers return home and may feel sad and a bit lost without their new camp family. People at home weren’t there so nobody can truly understand what they went through.

My suggestion is to send home a letter with staff comments and pictures (possibly even a video) to the parents explaining the experience their child went through. It can also give the parents suggestions on how to capitalize on the growth their child may have gone through at camp. For example, if the camper was really good at crafts, encourage the parents to foster that creative side with an art set. If the camper faced their fear of swimming and came to love the water, encourage the parents to get them involved with a local swim team.

This is something that can be a lot of extra work, I know. If you keep it to just the first time campers then that should help. Let parents know that this is a special thing you do for first time campers only so parents don’t expect this kind of thing every year, due to the extra work and time that is involved.

Stage 12 – Return with The Elixir

Make it easy for campers to share with family and friends their camp experience. There are a number of ways you can do this:

  • Online video
  • DVD
  • Pictures
  • Picture album
  • Website page of that specific week or session
  • Cool apparel that will get people to ask the campers about their experiences
  • Having campers write their “camp story” before leaving camp. Then frame it or make copies that campers can mail or hand out to family and friends.

What do you think?

I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on using the Hero’s Journey to enhance the first time camper’s experience.


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