“I’m Day Camp born
And Day Camp bred
And when I die I’ll be day camp dead!
So, Rah Rah for Day Camp
Rah Rah for Day Camp
Rah Rah for Day Camp
Ray Rah Ray!”
YMCA Day Camp 1950s-70s, Author Unknown
This was the anthem for the West Des Moines YMCA Shady Creek Day Camp (Iowa) during my years connected to them. Going to camps – day camp and residence camp – have had a big influence on my life, and probably on my work over the last 40 years. They were fun. They built my confidence. They made me less of an introvert. They taught me leadership. They created an affinity between me and an amazing, beautiful woman who married me 39 years ago (and catches errors in my blog posts). They taught me that we are at our best when, regardless of how hard something is to do, we try to make it fun and focus on what can go right.
I can think of a lot of posts I might write that originate with Day Camp. I was a camper from ages 7-10, and then was a counselor and then a camp director from ages 17-21. My return trip was my first real leader/project manager job. I wasn’t very good at it, but I learned a lot. This first day camp post is about singing out loud.
When I was a kid at camp, singing out loud was a natural thing to do. We sang – screamed – silly songs about skunks, bears, Indians, watermelons, peanuts; and sang quiet songs like Kum Bah Yah. It was fun. You learned the words and sang the songs. One reason you did was because the counselors sang the way you wanted to sing – with your whole body and heart. From ages 13-or-so to 17, I stopped singing out loud. I wasn’t at camp any more, I wasn’t musically inclined, I didn’t have a safe venue to sing, and, well, at that age I wasn’t particularly sure of who I was or how I fit in.
From age 13-17, I worked after school at my dad’s drug store on Ingersoll in Des Moines sweeping floors, stocking shelves, making sodas, coffee, and sandwiches for the nearby workers and teens; and delivering prescriptions . One of our regular patrons, Bert, had made a transition from being a loan officer to being a teacher during my years at the drug store. The spring I was 17 and graduating from high school, Bert was finishing his first year as a teacher. Dad was closing his store as the age of corner drug stores was coming to an end. Bert had found a summer job as the camp director at Shady Creek. Bert asked me if I wanted to work at Shady Creek as a camp counselor. I jumped at the chance.
The job started with a week of counselor training. Our group combined the YMCA’s east and west side camps so we had about 20 counselors who spent the week getting to know one another. We were a diverse mix of new high school grads, college students, and teachers on summer break all with varied camp experiences. Together, we learned how camp worked, how to run swimming lessons, games, camp craft, and songs. I got into it all except the singing. I knew most of the songs from memory, but stayed off to the side and sang softly immersed in my age-17 cloak of detachment and self-doubt. Marla, our group-appointed, music teacher on summer break song leader, was a sweet, understanding person. She’d coax me but not push me to sing out loud. “The kids will want you to sing with them” she said. I said “I will.” But my singing during training didn’t rise above a quiet tone of voice.
The first day of camp arrived. Marla and I rode on the bus to make the ride a part of the kids’ camp experience while Bert drove. The first campers got on board with tote bags and big smiles. Marla was standing up front and I was sitting in the middle of the bus. The kids, like bees to flowers, sat as close as possible to one or the other of us. They wanted to know everything about us, see what we felt like, smelled like, sounded like. What’s your name, how old are you, do you like pizza, do you have a girlfriend…? The shy ordinary teen became an instant minor celebrity. I wasn’t their big brother or baby sitter or strange older kid down the street. I was their counselor at camp. They were there to be like me.
Marla said, “Let’s sing a song. Do you guys know “Day Camp Born?” Yeah!!! Before I could think about it we were singing. And I was singing out loud. Marla gave me a smile. It was like when I was a camper, like the campers around me. Was I being the leader? Probably not. These kids were ready to sing. But I knew that I needed to sing with them. They expected it, needed it. Maybe I was showing the campers that when they grew up or had to be the responsible one, they didn’t have to lose the ability to let who they are come out for everyone to see. You were in a place, or could make a place, where you could be who you are without having to doubt yourself. You didn’t have to stop looking for or expecting to have some fun.
I sang out loud all summer and for four more after that. It defined who I became as a person. It’s been a lesson for me that, as people, or as a team, we need to be able to let out what we have inside. We need to feel recognized and accepted, not judged. The joy in being part of something comes in following the same tune together from start to end as loud as we can.
I still work at a local camp every summer as a volunteer. One of my favorite things is to see a group of campers, with or without a counselor, break into song as they walk along – loud and punctuated by laughter. It’s why they are there.
So, back to project management and finding what can go right (sorry…). Are you and your team singing out loud together? Do we create environments where everyone can engage in the conversations, choose to be part of the music, decide to sing together whenever they need to without being called together by the project manager? Are you directing an unwilling choir, or joining in with a happy chorus? If it’s more directing than joining in, try getting your team to sing their own songs, learn them, and sing along. Then they will want to learn your songs and sing with you.
Be day camp born and bred until you are day camp dead. It will be more fun and you will get more done.
Happy Independence Day and thanks for singing – I mean reading.
Copyright Glenn Briskin and “The Other Side of Risk” 2012