Camp Ruach ADAPTed last summer - Lessons for Summer '21

Lessons from JCC Camp Ruach's experience running camp in 2020

By Alanna Steinberg, Camp Director, JCC Camp Ruach

I think we can all agree that summer 2020 was one like we’ve never experienced before, and hopefully will never have to experience again. While 2021 will likely still be a “Covid Summer”, we are relieved that the “first” Covid summer is history. Whether you were or were not able to open your camp last summer, we hope that you will be able to glean some helpful tips for future camp seasons from our experience. Following are some concepts that propelled us and Camp Ruach, to a summer of unexpected and unprecedented levels of success, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Mind Over Matter
From the moment the doors of the Shimon & Sara Birnbaum JCC in Bridgewater, NJ, closed in March to when the last camper pulled away on the final day of camp, the Camp Ruach team and JCC staff maintained a “Can Do” attitude. While faced with dozens of uncertainties, diminishing camper numbers, and fear and skepticism from families, the faith we had in ourselves, our abilities, and our need to be there for the camp community never faltered. We were constantly thinking with a mindset of abundance rather than scarcity and were always searching for solutions. We camp professionals are experts at quick thinking and making modifications on the fly, but we can sometimes also be our own worst enemies when faced with what we perceive as an insurmountable problem. Surrounding yourself with positivity and peers who remain hopeful and optimistic is the best way to remain open to ideas of endless possibility.

What might this mean for your camp in 2021 (and beyond)?
  • When faced with a challenge or uncertainty (especially around COVID-19 restrictions) we recommend first naming every hurdle and frustration in your way. Then start a second list of all the ways you can overcome each challenge and perhaps come up an even better solution than before!
  • Create a framework of positivity and optimism from the beginning. Share more positives than frustrations and hurdles. Start each staff meeting with pieces of good news, and focus on all of the good (we know there is a lot!).
Let Your True Colors Shine Through
When faced with unprecedented challenges and a laundry list of newfound obstacles, it is difficult to not get overwhelmed. Your to-do list seems endless and the need to simply act is great. However, we need to also maintain our status as culture creators and social conveners. Last summer, for each modification we encountered at Camp Ruach we asked ourselves how it fit into the fabric of our camp without compromising who we are and the essence of our program. Campers and families choose us because of our traditions, our culture, and who we are as a community. They trust we will run and operate camp with the highest of safety measures in place, and also trust that regardless of a pandemic, camp will still be their child’s safe and happy place.

Examples from Camp Ruach Summer 2020
  • Turned a summer without busing into an opportunity for in-person family connection and relationship building in the carpool line
  • Utilized high caliber speakers in virtual staff training who otherwise may not have been able to facilitate a session
  • Ensured we offered a diverse range of program offerings on at-home “rain days” instead of closing entirely
  • Shifted weekly family fun nights into virtual family fun nights offering virtual camp fire sing-a-longs, scavenger hunts, dance parties, and more
  • Seamlessly added new health and safety procedures into the daily schedule and routine without compromising the fun and spirit of camp (e.g. increased transition times for handwashing and sanitization of supplies and program areas, built new handwashing stations, created individual group travel supply kits, and more)
What might this mean for your camp in 2021 (and beyond)?
  • Communicate with your parents about how your safety plan for 2021 is connected to your camp’s values and the focus on health and safety you’ve always prioritized for your campers and staff.
  • Consider how you can showcase the successes of your protocols and their implementation through social media posts and COVID-19 updates throughout the summer.
Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste
It is often said that one is judged not solely on how they handled a crisis, but on what immediately followed the crisis. Were you consumed by the problem or did you find opportunity in a time of despair? This focus on “what next” and how to emerge from a crisis better than you entered is a testament to the true success of an organization.

For Camp Ruach heading into summer 2020, we were facing financial hardship, were down significantly in camper enrollment, and were limited in our ability to implement certain activities safely. However, we pushed through the challenge, found new ways for meaningful camper, staff, and family engagement, and homed in on our role and importance to the community. As a result, we are coming out on the other side better than before and more certain of ourselves.

What might this mean for your camp in 2021 (and beyond)?
  • Think about what changes and innovations from 2020 you can borrow, repeat or modify in 2021. Did you have a new program or communication that successfully engaged your families in 2020 that you can mimic in 2021? What did you learn in 2020 that made you rethink “the way we do things” in a positive way?
  • Take time to reflect on this past year. What did you think went smoothly? What could you have done better? We will all face crises, of different kinds, throughout our tenure as camp professionals. How can we learn from this past pandemic to set us up for success moving forward?
With a strong community-centered approach, positive and meaningful social engagement at the core of our program design, and calm and certain management style, we head into summer 2021 with a new sense of purpose and confidence. As camp professionals, we face crisis at every level on a daily basis, yet it is how we tackle and face each challenge that defines us. Opportunity is awaiting all of us, we just have to take it!