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Tekoa Alumni Panels: Guest Post by Will Busch

24 Mar 2022 12:17 AM | Jen Burch (Administrator)

2020 turned our lives upside down. And it turned the world of camping upside down. It opened the floodgates that were already on the verge of breaking. Those gates? Hiring summer staff. Already we had seen a notable trend of summer staff giving one or two quality summers, but we were finding it harder and harder to get those “lifers” (people who spend all of their college summers at camp, even some prior if they came through our developmental program). Staff hiring and recruiting now played such a pivotal role, as turnover was increasing with every passing summer. Pre-pandemic, we had to contend with requirements from school (e.g., mandatory internships, summer classes, and studying abroad). These school requirements factored in with staff pay and the need to find someone to sublet apartments they were already contractually obligated to, required extra effort on the part of camp leaders; still, hiring was hard but manageable. 

Anytime we go to a career fair, developmental hangout, or just see fellow camp people in the outside world, one of the first questions that seems to be asked is “how is hiring going?” Summer camps are similar to a lot of the workforce, having a rough time finding staff willing to work and commit to the time we hope for. To adapt, camps are being flexible, hiring for partial summers, reworking programs in order to run with fewer staff.  However, these strategies are not necessarily sustainable or a healthy practice, and are contributing to turmoil and turnover like never before seen in the camping world, even for year round staff. This all sounds grim and tough, and quite frankly, it is. Camps are setting records with camper registrations and gaining traction through marketing efforts, but it’s challenging to envision having the full staff required to serve a growing camper population.

Camp Tekoa (Western NC) was able to find a new light and hope for encouraging retention once we have staff, in addition to being a powerful recruiting tool. That light? ALUMNI!!! Alumni are the backbone of camp. They are the ones we admire, learn from, and who continue to move forward to carry out the mission of camp. Each of Tekoa’s alumni has impacted hundreds of kids while their own lives are forever changed. Alumni are the reason we have some staff today. They are the reason those “lifers” who grew up as campers decided to give back and work on staff at their home camp. Alumni have a passion for camp that they love to share. In order to fundraise and endure the brunt of the pandemic, our camp relied heavily on reconnecting relationships and leaning on our enduring supporters. This experience led us to realize that our alumni are the reason we still run today; they are the ones we will piggyback off of for generations to come. This realization led us to the logical next step: connect summer staff alumni back to camp in a physical and spiritual way.

With this realization, and considering the staffing shortage we were facing, we decided to invite former staff to return to camp during staff training. They would reconnect with current staff in order to create a positive experience, increase retention rates, and help us to recruit new staff. Our Alumni Panel gathered people from various backgrounds. Together in one place, an accountant, a banker, youth leaders, a program director at a retirement home, and several teachers all were able to share about how their time at Tekoa has helped them with life after school and enriched their professional lives. We hoped that hearing their stories would help to eliminate the stigma that “camp isn’t a real job.” Yes, camp is fun, but it is also transformational. We used the personal connections with alumni to show the importance of camp and how the summer staff experience is worth so much more than the monetary value. Hearing encouraging words from our veteran staff helped ease nerves for current staff, to feel more comfortable for the road ahead that summer. The Alumni Panel experience also provided personal connections with someone in their line of work who shared the common factor of being transformed at Camp Tekoa. Due to the overwhelmingly positive outcome, we expect to continue offering this enriching program for years to come. 

Be inspired by a few quotes from alumni about their time at camp:

“I became a teacher. I was not intimidated when responsible for a large group of kids and I never ran out of activities to do with them. It’s also super helpful to know how to let go and be confident in front of any group of people”

- Julie Noblitt, former camper and counselor

“I just graduated from Law School! Tekoa (and John Isley) taught me how to be efficient while also going with the flow”

- Jo Harcombe, former ropes course facilitator

“When I couldn’t figure out a way to work as a FGL forever so I became a doctor instead. Tekoa summers taught me to take risks and what it feels like to do something you love. Also, how to lead a group and to be a person the vulnerable rely on and look up to.” - Dr. Lindsey Prewitt, former counselor

“I currently work as the Volunteer Coordinator at Henderson County Habitat for Humanity. Tekoa inspired my desire to do mission-based work. My time at Tekoa helped to uncover a passion for people and a drive to get community members involved in something larger than themselves”

- Kayler Debrew, former backpacking resource and counselor 

“I started my fourth (and final) year of medical school with hopes to specialize in anesthesia. As an FGL at Tekoa making quick bonds with campers and providing parental trust and reassurance parallel the patient population about to receive surgery and entrusting they will be kept safe and comfortable”

- Lucy Howard, former counselor and Logistics Coordinator

Special thanks to Camp Tekoa’s Program Intern, Will Busch, for sharing this story. “WillyB” is well-known for his loud singing of "Brown Squirrel" and his creative program planning for family groups. His passion has been being a Family Group Leader (FGL) because he believes that is where the magic of camp happens. Will studied Sports Management at Western Carolina University. He can be found around camp planning schedules, creating social media or slinging some disc golf discs (every shot is a hammer!)

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