Choosing the right summer program can be a daunting, difficult task. Choosing a camp can be overwhelming, and all the programs may look the same. It is important that you find a camp that meets the needs of both you and your child, and at Mercersburg Summer Programs we understand that.
Coleman Weibley, Director of Summer Programs at Mercersburg Academy, takes time to answer questions that the American Camp Association suggests parents ask program directors when selecting a camp.
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Q: What is the camp’s philosophy and program emphasis?
Each camp has its own method of constructing programs based on its philosophy. Does it complement your own parenting philosophy? Knowing your child’s personality and style of learning is valuable in selecting the right camp.
A: Mercersburg Summer Programs are safe, supportive environments that focus on engaging participants on every level and challenging them to broaden their horizons, make new friends, and create unforgettable memories. Mercersburg Academy’s beautiful campus provides the perfect setting for this wide range of opportunities for learning, personal growth, and most importantly, fun. All of our adventures are supervised to varying degrees. Young people need the opportunity to succeed and even to struggle, with the knowledge that they are tackling challenges within a supportive environment.
Q: What is the camp director’s background?
ACA minimum standards recommend directors possess a bachelor's degree, have completed in-service training within the past three years, and have at least 16 weeks of camp administrative experience before assuming the responsibilities of the director.
A: Many people do not know that I started working at Mercersburg Academy in a summer capacity in 2005. I came onboard as the assistant director in the office in 2013, where I helped to manage the day to day operations of the office and programming, and served as the Adventure Camp director. In addition to my work as it related to summer programming, I also spent four years organizing and managing international travel for Mercersburg Academy students. I was appointed the director of the office in 2017.
Prior to arriving at Mercersburg, I was the director of operations for the swimming and diving teams of Florida State University and the University of Tennessee (my alma mater), In this role at Tennessee, I also served as the summer swim camp director.
I hold a bachelor’s of science in education (majoring in recreation and sports management), and as of May 2018, I hold a master’s degree in business administration. I participate in annual education and training opportunities by the American Camp Association.
Q: What training do counselors receive?
At a minimum, camp staff should be trained in safety regulations, emergency procedures and communication, behavior management techniques, child abuse prevention, appropriate staff, and camper behavior, and specific procedures for supervision.
A: Many of our staff and counselors are Mercersburg Academy faculty or young alumni. Before to working camp sessions, the staff goes through extensive training in communication, problem-solving, and, of course, camper safety. We’ve partnered with Expert Online Training, a nationally recognized camp training company, which allows us to capitalize on training opportunities even before staff arrives on campus. We hold our staff to a high standard and expect them to follow the rules and regulations as prescribed in our extensive staff manual.
During training days, counselors participate in fire drills and other emergency scenarios. Staff preparation also includes interpersonal skills focused on dealing with homesickness, mediating/resolving conflicts, and other camper issues. Counselors are also trained in first aid, including epi-pen usage, and all staff members are CPR certified. Additionally, all staff members are required to complete extensive background clearances as mandated by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Q: What is the counselor-to-camper ratio?
ACA standards require different ratios for varying ages and special needs. Generally, the ratios at resident camps range from one staff for every six campers ages 7 and 8; one staff for every eight campers ages 9 to 14; and one staff for every ten campers ages 15 to 18. At day camps the ratios range from one staff for every eight campers ages 6 to 8; one staff for every ten campers ages 9 to 14; and one staff for every 12 campers ages 15 to 18.
A: Mercersburg Summer Programs often operates at one staff member for every five campers. Campers are never alone with just one counselor. Our counselor-to-camper ratio ensures that the staff can direct all of their focus on the unique needs and development of self-esteem and self-confidence in every camper. Staff training includes sessions on the importance of following counselor-to-camper ratios for the protection of campers and counselors alike.
Q; What are the ages of the counselors?
ACA standards recommend that 80 percent or more of the counselor/program staff be at least 18 years old. Staff must be at least 16 years old and be at least two years older than the campers with whom they work.
A: Mercersburg Summer counselors are typically college students or youthful teachers who have a zest for working with kids. Each summer a few junior counselors (under 18) join our staff to learn the ropes and participate in all the fun. Junior counselors are never alone with campers, nor do they lead camp activities alone. Mercersburg Academy does not employ anyone under the age of 16.
Q: What are desirable qualities for camp staffers?
The same qualities of trustworthiness and dependability sought by any employer are valued commodities in camp employees. Also, the ability to adapt to a variety of situations, empathy for and ability to work with camp clientele, a strong self-image, and an outgoing personality are important characteristics for camp staff.
A: Mercersburg Summer staff members are inventive, creative, and responsible people who truly love to work with kids. When interviewing summer program candidates, we’re looking for those who have a passion for their respective program, and want to share it with others. Most importantly, we look for those who are in it for the kids, and not for themselves. After all, that is what camp is all about. Our interviews often include difficult scenarios that help us understand how a counselor may react in certain circumstances. Many of our candidates are looking to pursue careers working with the public, education, psychology, and sociology. Staff members fulfilling “specialist” or “instructor” roles are also required to hold current certifications by the governing body of their respective area.
Q: What percentage of the counselors returned from last year?
Most camps have from 40-60 percent returning staff. If the rate is lower, find out why.
A: On average, Mercersburg Summer Program retains 55 percent of its staff from summer-to-summer. Staff members are invited to return to Mercersburg after their program director and the director of summer programs have conducted a complete review of their performance. Only those who live up to our high standards and expectations are invited to return. Unfortunately, because we are not able to offer year-round employment, we lose many of our college-age staff members when they graduate.
Q: How are behavioral and disciplinary problems handled?
Rules are necessary for any organization, and the disciplinary approach taken should be reasonable and well communicated. If penalties are involved for violations, they should be applied quickly, fairly, calmly, and without undue criticism to campers.
A: Our summer staff discusses behavioral issues and disciplinary problems on a regular basis, in private and confidential staff meetings, so that all staff members are aware of potential recurring problems. While counselors are trained to mediate in these situations, they are not permitted to reprimand campers. Usually problems are resolved early, however, if they are not, they are passed on to the program director and the director of summer programs. Positive reinforcement and assertive role-modeling are important when dealing with these issues.
Q; How does the camp handle special requirements?
If your child has special requirements, ask the camp director about needed provisions and facilities. Is there a nurse on staff? A designated place to store insulin or allergy medicine? Are special foods available for campers with restricted diets? Every question is important.
A: Care of our participants includes medical services. A team of registered nurses manages our on-campus Health Center and work closely with a local family practice for campers that may need additional care. There is also a full-time Health Services Assistant available 24 hours a day. When it comes to dietary needs, our chefs are very sensitive to alternative needs and preferences. All meals include a main entree, side dishes, salad/sandwich bar, vegetarian and gluten-free options, and a fruit station.
Q: How does the camp handle homesickness and other adjustment issues?
Again, the camp's philosophy on helping children adjust is important. Be sure you are comfortable with the camp's guidelines on parent/child contact.
A: Mercersburg’s summer staff is trained in a variety of interpersonal skills, including dealing with homesickness. Our goal is to keep campers active with a fun time so that they are too busy to think about home. In the events that campers do become homesick, we encourage them to write letters home, which our staff will scan and e-mail at their earliest convenience. Telephone calls to (or from) home tend to distract campers from the program, breaking the momentum of camp, and ultimately end up being counterproductive to coping with homesickness.
Q: What about references?
This is generally one of the best ways to check a camp's reputation and service record. Directors should be happy to provide references.
A: Our previous participants are always willing to be a reference for potential families! For the safety and security of our participants we do not handout contact information of our families, but instead, ask our families to reach out to potential families directly. If you’d like for us to connect you with one of our references, simply e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: Is the camp accredited by the American Camp Association? Why? Why not?
Accreditation visitors ask the questions — up to 300 of them — regarding essential health, safety, and program quality issues important to a camp's overall operation. This does not guarantee a risk-free environment, but it's some of the best evidence parents have of a camp’s commitment to a safe and nurturing environment for their children.
A: Mercersburg Summer Programs is accredited by the American Camp Association. This was one of my first initiatives as the director, as I felt it serves as a verification of our commitment and accountability to the children and families we serve. ACA accreditation standards focus primarily on the program quality, health, and safety aspects of a camp's operation, an by earning accredited status Mercersburg has met nearly 300 industry standards.
The American Camp Association, which is the only independent accrediting organization reviewing camp operations in the country, collaborates with experts from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Red Cross, and other youth-serving agencies to assure that current practices at the camp reflect the most up-to-date, research-based standards in camp operation.