Posts Tagged With: camp

that’s a wrap folks

1148909_645041282180658_88436032_nCamp wrapped up last night and now reentry into the world beyond camp begins once again. Last night was one of those late nights as the staff extended the kiss and cry and lingered, not wanting to turn the page on this thing that we had built together over the last few months. It’s a tough thing, leaving a community of intentionality and love and support and reentering a world that is… less focussed on these things. As usual it is the newer staff who hang on the tightest and as this was my 17th such event and my 8th here at Valaqua, I find myself just trying to be patient and gracious and waiting for everyone to go home.

Don’t get me wrong, I will miss this group (they were excellent) but there comes a time when you recognize the transition as one of many and sadly it looses some of the magic it once held.

I teach a session to my staff about the stages of staff progression. It begins with the excited staff with few skills but lots of enthusiasm and progresses all the way to the Natural who is a camp person all the way to the centre of their being. The thing I try to highlight as I teach this is that the camp community is built on the backs of those staff with raw skills and bundles of energy. We need our stage one and two and three staff to carry us old tired guys along.

I like to use the image of a campfire. As anyone who has been through my fire-building session will know, you need three sizes of fuel to start a fire: tinder, kindling, and fuel. The tinder is the small stuff (smaller than your finger) that catches a spark and holds it and you need a lot because it burns very, very fast. Kindling are the small sticks (finger width-ish) that cary the flame on and you need a fair number of those as well. The fuel are the larger logs and once ignited, they hold the flame for a long time, giving the fire longevity.


In my imperfect metaphor of camp as campfire, campers come as tinder, we need lots of them and they burn fast and go home tired. The counseling staff take on the role of kindling, taking the spark of excitement from the campers and making it into something bigger. The leadership of the camp acts as fuel, taking the flame and helping it to burn and give light and heat over a longer period of time.

Staff party is this afternoon so we are not done saying goodbyes yet, but the hope is that these goodbyes in the light of day hold more hope and joy. We will enjoy some time together at the beach and linger in one another’s company one more time before we part ways for the winter. Then it is back to the reentry plan as fall becomes a fast reality.

Thank you to everyone who helped make Valaqua a great place to be this summer. To the staff, countless volunteers, and to the parents who trusted us enough to drop off their children: thank you. I hope you join us again next summer!

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the grace to grow

graceEach year during our staff training week I lead a session called “stupid things I have said and done.” During this session I focus on some of the more glaring failures that have occurred over my otherwise illustrious career in the wonderful world of Summer Camp. There have been some doozies, let me tell you.

The staff loves this session. They love listening to me recount tales of boundary crossing and poor decision making. They laugh at my stories of pranks gone wrong and devotions hijacked and act appropriately somber when I try to convey the lessons learned through each of these events. I think it’s likely that the staff loves this session mostly because it humanizes me and allows them to laugh at mistakes they may well have made themselves but that remain too fresh for humour. What strikes me is that in my time at Camp, I have been given the opportunity to mess up over and over.

summer-camp-staffI had the opportunity this winter to sit in a circle of Camp Directors and talk about staff discipline. It was an interesting conversation as we looked at various scenarios of staff infraction and discussed our responses to them. The circle held a broad range of camp Directors from a broad range of camps and so each scenario elicited the expected broad range of reactions. What struck me in those scenarios is how quickly we proceed to firing our imaginary employees for their imaginary transgressions. It was a straightforward and unanimous decision in the more extreme cases that included drug use and abuse, but became progressively blurrier when it came to individual camp rules and abuses of time off and we began to hear some dissenting voices, mine was among them. In my eight years at Valaqua I have yet to fire an employee. I would love to tell you that it is because our staff members are so amazing that none of them have ever made an error so grave and that would be mostly true. My staff messes up. Heck, I still mess up. The only thing that keeps us all going and all together is grace.

See, I don’t like the idea of persecution. I don’t like the idea of making an example of someone. I get that it is effective, I get that groups of people respond to this, but I don’t like to think about sacrificing even one person for the betterment of the group. I am stubbornly unwilling to give up on a staff member (or friend, or family member) and will sometimes go to ridiculous lengths to support that person. Maybe this is because I am a soft touch, maybe this suggests softness in my cranium, but I think it has more to do with the ridiculous lengths that others have gone to for me. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes an even bigger village to raise a whole and healthy adult.

So while I prepare for yet another session of telling unflattering tales on myself I find myself reflecting on grace. As a young Counsellor and Program Director I was extended enormous grace by those who supervised me. When I put all of my mistakes into one pile it seems amazing to me that I was invited back year after year. The thing is, each of those mistakes taught me something. Each of my lapses in judgement, each of my attempts at humour gone wrong, each of my moments on the wrong side of the line have taught me a lesson that I carry with me today and make me the competent (mostly), capable (usually), and compassionate (for the most part) camp staffer that I have become. I have learned grace by demonstration and now I try to show it to the young staff who choose to call Valaqua home. I even try to show it to myself every once and a while, which is admittedly harder.

So we go into camp.  Campers come on Friday and don’t stop until the end of August.  In this season of sunshine (we hope) and shorts I wish you grace.  Grace with those you interact with and grace shown to you.

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The Out-Trip Lifestyle; One worth sharing

DSC_1768.NEFWhen I landed in Calgary two weeks ago I was picked up from the airport by the other half of the Out-Trip Team here at Camp Valaqua; Carol McNaughton. After a few minutes of catching up we set to figure out the important question, how soon could we get to the mountains? As soon as I landed in Calgary I felt the pull of the mountains to the west of me and knew that was where I wanted to go. Thankfully I am teamed up with someone equally as adventurous and after a brief stop to pack a lunch we were headed west in search of a mountain to hike and some rock to climb.


Since that first day in the Canadian Rockies two weeks ago I have enjoyed five other similar days rock climbing, scrambling, canoeing, and mountain biking, all great adventure-filled days spent with good friends in beautiful country, but also so much more than that. Because of my position as the Out-Trip Director at Camp Valaqua each one of those days becomes a scouting trip, it becomes time to practice my technical rope skills or paddling skills and to practice making risk management decisions. I am constantly making mental notes about what makes the day more enjoyable for those around me even when the rain has turned the limestone into slimestone and becomes un-climbable. Looking for alternate activities when the weather turns sour and keeping spirits high nonetheless is a skill appreciated by my friends and campers alike. These outdoor hobbies that I have been so blessed to participate in and have grown to love and in turn introduce to others have become a lifestyle for me.

A huge part of this lifestyle is the planning. Currently, I am excitedly putting together trip plans for the three adventure-filled Out-Trips that Camp Valaqua is offering this summer in July. This does involve a serious amount of 

time in the office researching, looking at maps and booking campsites. While it may not sound like the most exciting part of this position, I have grown to love it. It is the time when anticipation grows. I learn of all the campers I will get to share this lifestyle with for a week and decide on what mountains, rivers, trails and rock faces I will get to spend this time with them. Because without the campers there is no lifestyle. The awesome campers, the Hana’s and Magda’s, the Sam’s, Mason’s and Tessa’s are what give my lifestyle purpose.


So in return I really want to give them a worthwhile experience, one that extends beyond just an opportunity to get outside, and becomes an opportunity to grow and explore who they are as God’s children in his natural playground he has made for us to explore.

Anyone who has ever asked me what I do in the summer and why I have chosen this lifestyle have probably heard me explain the reasons I believe this lifestyle is worth sharing. I have told others about it more than a hundred times but this is the first time I will put it into writing.

The first reason has to do with my experience when I was first introduced to backcountry camping, rock climbing, and canoeing which was only three years ago, it was all so new for me and in some ways still is and always will be. It was outside of what I knew, it was uncomfortable at times and downright terrifying at others. And the result was that it forced me to be real about who I was. I have found that when young people are placed into new situations they cannot help but being their genuine self because they have no prior experience to fall back on. It is raw, it is real and it creates a space for honest questions and conversations about life and God. Something I like to call the campfire effect.

The second reason I believe this lifestyle is worth sharing is because I love experiential learning. There are a few lessons in my life that I learned at very specific instances, the lessons are linked to specific trips and specific experiences. These types of lessons that I can link to a particular memory, are the ones I will never forget, and so many of these lessons have occurred while hiking, climbing, and just enjoying this world with the right people. Learning through experience.

So I would like to personally invite anyone and everyone (between the ages of 12-17) to come and share this Out-Trip lifestyle with me this summer, it begins at Camp Valaqua and who knows (well I do) where we might be swept off to. Yes it will probably rain at some point and it will definitely be physically challenging; you may get scared at times and you will probably find some dirt (trail spice) in your lunch at some point. But it will be real, it will be an adventure and you will share the whole experience with others who it is all new to as well.

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a place at the table

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was the last week in August and I sat in a chapel session troubled and barely listening. Some of our campers this summer had been “hard” kids and our counselors were pushed to their limits. This meant that some of the “good kids” were overlooked as our staff struggled to care for more challenging campers. This downgraded and sometimes ruined the experience for the other campers and I was thinking about this, and wondering about balance and worth as I sat.

Our Chaplain was speaking on Luke 14: 12-24 and something in his words reached through my contemplative fog and pulled me in. In this verse Luke tells the story of Jesus at a banquet. Jesus addresses the host saying: “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind and you will be blessed.”

As we plan the banquet we often take the easy approach inviting those we care about, knowing that our generosity will be repaid somewhere down the line. But the teachings of Jesus never allow his followers to settle for the easy approach. In Luke, Jesus calls us to invite those that would not otherwise have an opportunity to feast. We are challenged to invite the hard kids, the troubled kids, kids that make us work and grumble and work some more that we might share with them a place at the table and show them a glimpse of God’s love.

And so we set the table at camp, knowing it will be hard, knowing we will struggle, and knowing that we will need God’s help to get through.

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creating a happy camper

sleep-away-3For 54 years Camp Valaqua has been welcoming kids to our little corner of creation to grow in all sorts of directions. Kids who spend the week with us grow in self-confidence, faith, and in community with one another. We don’t do it alone though, and here are some tips and suggestions to help your child have a great week at summer camp.

First Time Considerations
The decision about when to send your child to camp for the first time is a challenging one. Some kids are emotionally ready at 7 and others need to wait until they are nine or ten. Take a bit of time and evaluate the emotional maturity of your child prior to registering them for camp. Valaqua has age breakdowns for each of our camps, however, we know that as a parent, you know your child best and you are the best judge of when they are ready and are willing to flex our age guidelines to best accommodate your child.

Prior to Camp
Throughout the year prior to camp, it’s important to encourage your child’s independence as much as possible. Give them opportunity to experience some separations from you, such as sleeping at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, having a sleepover at a friend’s. Discuss what camp will be like when they are there, and what they’ll need to do on their own –changing clothes every day, taking showers, etc. Help them understand that they’ll be sharing sleeping quarters and bathroom facilities with up to 5 other boys or girls, which is a little different than what they are used to at home.

Once you have registered your child for camp, and been accepted for your preferred week(s), go through the checklist of “What to Pack for Camp”. As you’re packing for camp, involve your child so they are familiar with the items you’re placing in their suitcases. The more involved they are, with the process of getting ready for camp, the more likely they will feel at ease when they arrive.

Parents kissing girl.Avoiding Homesickness
Many campers, at one time or another, experience homesickness. It’s a very normal thing, and in most cases, the child gets over it in a very short period of time. But, there is a lot that you (as parents) can do to help your child avoid homesickness, or give them the ability to quickly cope with it if it does happen at camp.

The first thing to consider is how you are going to deal with “childsickness” while they’re away. Sending your child to camp may be the first time you’re without them for a week. But, this is one of many steps that your child will take toward full independence later in life. If you are experiencing some nerves about sending your child to camp, avoid expressing your anxiety to them. It’s okay to say “I’m going to miss you, but I know you’ll have a great time”, but probably not a good idea to let them think you’ll be miserable without them.

If they express their concern to you about being homesick, acknowledge that it’s okay to miss home and family while they’re at camp, but continually encourage them that you know they’ll be fine. One thing that should be avoided where possible is “making a deal” with your child. Telling your child that if they don’t like it you’ll come and pick them up sets your child up for failure and deprives them of a great opportunity to grow in independence.

When you arrive at camp, you will be checking in with the Camp Directors and you will meet your child’s counselors. Help them get set-up in their cabin and take a walk around camp with them (strongly encouraged if it’s your first time) so you and they become comfortable with the surroundings. Once they’re settled, our recommendation is that you don’t linger around camp too long. Staying too long just delays the transition to being at camp. Don’t worry – we’ve been taking care of kids for more than 54 years at Valaqua, and we will keep them safe!

While your child is at Valaqua it is difficult to maintain direct communication. Camp is a busy week and the campers are on the go for most of the day. If you need to talk to your child, call the camp office and we will make arrangements. If you are worried about how your child is doing, give us a call and we can check in with their counsellor, have a chat with them about how the week is going, and give you an update.

Calling home is a tricky one as for many kids the call to mom and dad triggers or worsens homesickness by reminding them that they miss you and love you. We use our discretion with phone calls home, but do not “bar the door.” If your child needs to talk to you, we will make sure they have the chance, but first we will encourage them to engage in everything we can offer at Valaqua and will try to help them focus on the fun that they are having here and now.

A Final Note
Valaqua has been helping kids Discover God in Creation for almost three generations and our return rate is very high. The majority of our staff grow out of our leadership programs and our leadership programs are populated with our campers. This means that we know our staff well before we hire them.

Our goal is to make sure that your child has a fun, safe week that is full of personal, spiritual, and relational growth. The suggestions above help your child to be prepared and help us accomplish our goal of giving your child a great week at camp!

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five questions to ask before you send your kids to camp

Father Holding Daughter's HandOk, so if you are a first time camp parent or sending your kids to a new camp for the first time you are bound to have some trepidation about trusting your little one to these… other people. I get this. I am a parent and I have a deep appreciation for what it means each and every time another parent chooses to trust us with the care of their child for a week. It is a BIG DEAL and we recognize the responsibility and do our best to make sure you feel good about your choice too.

So here is a way to feel better about your choice. Here are five questions I suggest you ask before you register your child for summer camp.

Do you have a mission statement?
All camps and organizations should have a mission statement. The question is; is it a mission statement that you support? Camp Valaqua’s mission statement is on our website and in the minds of all of our staff because we train them with it. If you call and ask about a mission statement, the staff member on the phone should be able to give you an outline of what it is. This gives you a good idea of the guiding principles of the camp and how well they are carried out at the staff level. Too often boards come up with mission statements and the staff are not connected with them. Knowing that the staff can articulate the mission statement and that it is one you are comfortable with is a good sign.

Just for the record, Valaqua’s mission statement is right here:

Camp Valaqua is dedicated to proclaiming the Good News that God is the Creator, we are God’s people, and the earth is placed in our hands as a gift and a trust.
We give campers the opportunity to:
• develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ
• live with others in Christian community
• learn how to care for God’s Creation
• have fun in a safe and accepting environment

MP900144546How do you find your staff members?
What are your staff members trained in? How do you hire them? Where do they come from?

The obvious answer to the first question should be first aid as well as any activity related skills. There should be more though, staff should be trained in working with kids on all sorts of levels: dealing with behavior  homesickness, bullying, and a host of site specific training.

Hiring practices are worth asking about too. Do you require security clearances? Child Welfare Checks? References? Who does the interviews? The specific answers are important, but less important than the assurance that all of these things have been thought about and that there is a process in place for hiring summer staff.

Where staff come from and how they are hired tell a story. I am in the enviable position in that I usually know my staff very well before they become my staff. The staff we hire grow up in our camp program and I usually know them as campers, volunteers, and Counselors in Training before I hire them to the position of counselor  Knowing where the staff come from counts for something. Staff hired in international exchanges or from across the country can be great, but it is hard to know who will show up when staff training starts.

Are you accredited or do you follow any universal standards?
Each province has a governing body that oversees the accreditation of the camps in that province. Here in Alberta, the Alberta Camping Association has an accreditation program for summer camps that sets a minimum standard for camps to uphold. Accreditation deals with things like staffing ratios, safety issues, certification requirements and ensures that the camp you are looking at follows the minimum industry best practices. Asking if the camp is accredited, by whom, and how long it has been accredited helps you to get a good idea of the standards the camp maintains.

Is your camp part of a larger organization?
Many camps are just one piece of a larger organization. Camp Valaqua is owned and operated by Mennonite Church Alberta, and knowing this, you can find out a bit about us by looking up what Mennonite Church Alberta does and stands for. Knowing who the parent organization is helps to identify the camp.

What will my child’s cabin group look like?IMGP3169
Knowing how the cabins are structured, how many kids and staff are grouped together, and what the facility looks like gives you an idea what the week at camp will look like for your child.

Staff ratios, sleeping accommodation, size of the group, even requesting images of the actual cabins they will be staying in are all fair questions.

One more piece of advice; don’t hesitate to ask. I answer a lot of questions from nervous parents each and every year and even if you are sure no one has ever been this nervous before or asked this question before I assure you, you’re not the only one. Ask away. We are on the same team, you and I, we both want your child to have a great week at camp.

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What summer camp should be and why your kids should go

IMG_2826Ah summer camp. If I had my druthers then any mention of summer camp would bring forth memories of sunsets by the water, music around the campfire and amazing over-the-top experiences. When camp is doing the things it should be doing, it creates an environment where kids have opportunities to grow in all sorts of directions. When camp is doing it right campers grow in self-confidence, they grow in their relationships with others, and they grow in independence.

According to the Alberta Camping Association, camps are defined as short term events in which four of the five following criteria are met:
Physically active experience
Natural environment experience
Community experience
Educational experience
Peer leadership experience
Physically Active Experience

Physically active experience
When summer camp is doing the things it should be doing, then it is a physically active experience. Note this doesn’t say a physically intimidating experience or a physically competitive experience, just physically active. My background is in physical education and if there is one thing I can get on a soapbox and rant about it is how we compartmentalize physical activity. We break physical activity into a single component of our day: I will be physically active between 4:30 and 5 pm and then feel pretty good about sitting on the couch for the rest of the evening. At camp, being physically active is part of the landscape. There are scheduled components no doubt, but the components of your day are made of activity: You swim in the river and climb on the wall and run in the field and you do it all as beats of the clock. But it doesn’t end there, the moments between are in a landscape of physicality and reality. You walk where you need to go and you carry what you need for activities. There are games to play and frisbees to throw and real life fun to be had. All of this changes our perspective of being physically active from that of “working out” to incorporate it into our lives. When running around is fun you never need to “train” for anything.

DSC06018Natural Environment Experience
Camps give us the opportunity to connect with the natural world. In Richard Louve’s fabulous book Last Child in the Woods he coins the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” to help understand a new breed of sickness: a lack of connection with the natural world. The natural spaces are disappearing from our children’s world at an alarming rate. When camp is doing the things it should be doing it gives campers an amazing opportunity to experience creation first hand! I have been able to share thunderstorms, rainbows, owls, elk, moose, countless bugs, deer, and many other amazing experiences in creation with campers in my care. Many times I have had these experiences recounted to me years later when I meet the camper again. The natural world impacts our kids in ways we don’t yet fully understand but the impact is deep and camp provides one way to experience that world firsthand.

Community Experience
Camp provides a unique community for the campers who come here. A camp community has almost an island feel to it, being a community that is both away from the everyday and also somewhat isolated from the outside world. When campers come to Valaqua, they have an opportunity to start fresh. The sense of away-ness that is created here allows kids to leave the labels they carry in their everyday lives behind and to be the person they truly want to be.
The short term nature of camp means community must form fast and the intensity of a week at camp can often temper relationships to a harder edge than those formed in less intense environments. The incredibly strong community formed at camp is a palpable thing and a major goal of what camps aim to do in the week or more that your child is part of the program.

sleep-away-5Educational experience
When a camp is doing what it should be doing it creates an educational experience for the campers who attend. The topic of education can be a broad one; anything from how to paddle a canoe to how to be a better neighbor, but the goal is the same: for the camper to leave the program with more resources and knowledge than they came with.
We also know that skills are not gained in a vacuum. The ability to do a J stroke in a canoe may not help in future career endeavors, but the confidence and belief in oneself gained from acquiring the skill most certainly will. When I see the “Aha!” moment on a camper’s face as they realize the acquisition of a new skill or new piece of knowledge, I recognize that I am seeing a step in the construction of a whole person.

Peer leadership experience
A peer leadership experience is an aspect of a successful summer camp program that is often viewed as a happy coincidence rather than a core piece of camp work. When camp is doing what it should be doing it gives young people the opportunity to be leaders.
Camp is one of the few places in this world where we put young people in charge. We train them up, give them the resources they need, and then hand over the keys. This is huge in the development of young leaders. Very few places in the world do we truly trust our young people to take on the challenge of leading and organizing anything. What I have learned in my years as a camp Director is that these young staff will surprise you! They have tools and depths of energy and resilience that we hadn’t even guessed at. Sure they make mistakes. Sure the judgement isn’t always 100%, but that is why mentors stand close at hand, ready to intervene in the big moments if necessary. The camp formula provides our young people opportunities to lead and there is no better training to do something then the act of doing it.

A physically active experience, a natural environment experience, a community experience, an educational experience, and a peer leadership experience. These are the cornerstones of Summer Camp. The order and priority may shift, but these 5 components are the keystones to a great camp experience!

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