By Gary Forster, Camping Specialist, YMCA of the USA

I’ve worked at YMCA summer camps for 32 years. As trite as it may sound, the internet has provided the single greatest improvement to YMCA camping. That improvement is allowing parents to see and share, almost in “real time,” the life changing experiences we’ve always been providing for their children, but they were never able to be a part of.

When a parent drops their most precious position off at camp, they often leave with some unanswered questions: “What will they actually be doing? Will it be safe? What if it rains? Will my child eat? Are the kids nice?” A few will make a call to the camp staff as soon as they get home, most will just anxiously wait for the first letter home. The letter that usually doesn’t come. (So then they call.) Or it’s the letter “My counselor made me write or I wouldn’t get to eat dinner tonight” that often contains the hardships of the first couple days, (and then mom calls the camp.)

It’s been a long lonely week or two for mom, but she finally gets to pick up her child at the end of the session. The child who sits like a lump in the backseat. “How was camp, honey?” … “Good.”… “Did you make any friends?”… “Yup.” … “Was the food just awful?! “ … “um… yeah, I guess so.” Then “Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz” all the way home. Mom does get a surprise when she opens the footlocker or duffle bag at home: a stinky mess of mildewed clothes. “Just what went on at that camp, anyway?”

Now, the camps with the greatest concern for their parents would have done the following: On check-in day, in addition to being given the camp’s address and instructions on what is and isn’t appropriate to mail to their camper, parents are given the web address, in writing, where they will be able to check each day to see what’s been going on at camp. The best camps will actually have the parents e-mail address by now, and will e-mail them that very night with the web site as a link to pop open. Really great camps will e-mail a photo of their kid’s cabin group to them!

So imagine this: Monday morning, and every morning, mom and dad go to work, and the very first thing they do is to log on to the camp’s daily-update web page. There they see a half a dozen photos of the previous day’s activities, the menu for today, the daily schedule, even the thought for the day for that morning. They call everyone nearby to “come look at my kid’s camp!” (Nice marketing!) I think our camps are the source of a new decline in productivity at work each summer as this is going on!

If it rains, let’s look to see that the kids are having fun anyway. Special events? Articles by the “camp newspaper” class… photos taken by the “digital photography” class… great photos of kids around the campfire, setting the tables at meals, sweeping up the cabin, taking a horseback ride. “I had no idea so much was going on at camp!” is the most common parent response. And then they quickly write an e-mail to their camper that includes positive reinforcement for the terrific activities they just saw. Doesn’t matter that they didn’t see their own kids, because at least they know this is real, it’s not a brochure. It’s a digital visual testimonial to the wonders of camp life.

And they get to share in their camper’s experience. It’s a parents dream come true.

Should everyone have access to this site, or just those parents given a “password?” I can understand how a camp might be concerned, but we don’t ask for a password to get our brochures with the same photos in them, do we? We just don’t put kids names on their photos. Parents want to get this information quick, so they don’t want to wait a day to get “approved.” And it completely loses its value as a marketing tool if visitors to your site can’t get to it.

Once parents get to your photos, it’s important that they get drawn into them. I’d rather see 6 good photos in a nice “web-newsletter” format, rather than several dozen thumb-nails that can only be seen when they are expanded, and then are of disappointing quality.
The photos here are to tell a story and to answer the parents’ questions. And when the kids get home, it’s a lasting memory of their summer; one they can even call up in the computer lab at school to show off to their friends!

Save the thumbnails for the cabin group photos, where you need to have lots of photos on a single page so a camper or parent can find their group in a hurry and click on their own group for a full-screen view. Imagine the alumni possibilities if 20 years from now former campers could find themselves and their friends! It brings the term web term “Refresh” to a whole new level, as it refreshes memories, past friendships, and the wonderful life-lessons learned at camp!

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