The Future of GRP’s Leadership Training Program

By Anne Mead

It’s hard to start writing this. I have been toiling over what to do with our Leadership-in-Training program, otherwise known as Trail Blazers Leadership Expedition (TBX) for a few weeks/months now. Here’s my dilemma: currently we have 2 folks enrolled in the program for 2015. Numbers say- cancel. Business says cancel. My heart says run it.

So I have been trying to ask a lot of questions starting with WHY? Why are the numbers so low? Why is no one signing up? Why is this amazing leadership program that now offers four science college credits not filling? What can we do as an organization to make our campers and other teens realize this is college prep, this is a resume builder, this is an exceptional program, this is….really, really, good stuff.

To answer a lot of these questions (and more….) I feel like it is necessary to give you a little bit of background. TBX was born to try and solve our issues and problems with GRP’s Counselor-in-Training program. For several years we had offered two, 4-week sessions to our oldest campers (16-17) that coincided with summer camp. Up to eight campers each session were selected to work, play, and be a part of the camp community while playing a unique role in our camp family. They were not campers but not quite staff yet. They were in the middle: a transition year. Unfortunately, a few members of this program over the years contributed to ruining it for everyone. Poor choices were made and we as an administrative staff found ourselves spending more time and energy disciplining and managing these teens than anyone else in the camp community. It was a shame to say the least.

As sad as it was to end the CIT program it was a necessity. But we also felt like we still wanted to offer a program that would train our oldest campers to be leaders. After many weeks of researching, planning, talking to college counselor, parents, and employers, and thinking about this “need” and our mission (to provide a challenging and nurturing learning experience and inspire a deep appreciation of interconnectedness, ecological respect, and the joy of living) we birthed Trail Blazers Leadership Expeditions. The concept was simple and different: use trail building as a vehicle for leadership training and life skills development.

Something we hear more and more frequently is the high school graduates of today are not ready for college and the “real world.” They lack the life skills like responsibility, problem solving, team building, self-confidence, decision-making, and leadership, to be successful in the job market (http://www.p21.org/our-work/resources/for-educators). After speaking with several colleges, principles, employers, and parents we realized not only are we already doing this is at camp but we are doing this extremely well. So, we decided to take it a step further and really hone these skills on TBX.

One of our goals was to create a program that campers would want to participate in but take it another step further and start training them for the real world. One of the biggest challenges we face as employers with campers making that transition to being counselors is the realization that camp is indeed a job. Yes camp is fun. Yes camp is beautiful. Yes it is amazing and all those wonderful things. But unless we have the hard working staff helping to make those opportunities happen…. it doesn’t. We find that our best counselors are those that buy into the concept that “camp is for the camper.” Because it is. That simple.

We feel like TBX really teaches the concept of hard work and service, all the while offering our Leaders the time to explore and learn about themselves and their strengths and skills. Most importantly all of these lessons are happening while having an amazing hands-on experiences. And I have to say- our goals and expectations for the program were confirmed when in the first year we had a waiting list for the program. And then…. the second year we had 8 of our first year participants return, 2 folks moved on to be solid counselors, and again had a waiting list. But last year that changed- and we had to cancel it because of low enrollment. And as I said earlier- it is heading that way again.

So, in order to answer some of these questions and find the why- Stephen and I have been asking our expeditioners for the last few years what they like and don’t like about the program. For the purposes of this blog, I am going to address the negatives but please know there are a lot of positives! The biggest thing we are hearing from our community and might I add solely from those who have not participated is “we do not want to pay to work.” We hear this. And we recognize that this mindset has to change. There’s no free lunch, right? Another aspect that we hear is missing is “social credit” otherwise known as time at camp. Thankfully- this seems like an easy fix. Participants in TBX will now live at base camp and be a part of the larger camp community.

Now, you might be wondering what are the benefits and the returns you as an investor (both parent and participant) are getting out of this leadership program. We are going to teach them how to apply for a job, how to interview for a job, how to get a job, and how to keep a job. We are going to teach them how to lesson plan, how to execute that plan, and how to interact with children of all ages. We are going to help your teenager make the journey from child to adult and discuss what that transition really means. These benefits will come from the leadership training, counselor training, job training, skills training, and life training we will do. We will work on competence, confidence, resilience, respect, responsibility, and more. Without belaboring you with all the curriculum- those are the themes and our goals with this group of young adults.

Now the bigger question: “How do we change the mindset of paying to work?” Well, one thing we are going to do is restructure the program. Maybe a better way to phrase this is- we will restructure the time commitments of the elements of the program. Again- we feel like we have created an amazing Leadership-in-Training program and all the components are there but maybe there was too much emphasis on service and trail building. So, instead of trail building being the vehicle for leadership training over a 2-3 week period, leadership training will happen centered around base camp.

How will that look you might ask? We have decided to divide the four program weeks into themes. It will look something like this…..

Week 1: What is leadership?
Dive into finding out what kind of leader you are and what goals you want to achieve to better yourself as a leader this summer. Complete first aid and CPR training and any other trainings we can offer (chainsaw, wood splitting, lifeguard???) Focus on decision making skills, communication tactics, and what it takes to be a good employee and community member.

Week 2: Camper Focus
This is the start of the 3-week session. Each participant will have an adopt-a-cabin, similar to our mentors, and assist with cabin counselor duties. Session goals will be set for working with the cabin like putting the cabin group to bed, leading an activity on campout, assisting with evening program development, lead a Group Learning Project (GLP) and more. Leaders will take classes on behavior management, ages and stages of development, and talk about what it takes to be successful when working with children.

Week 3: Staff Focus
Leaders will shadow staff and be assigned techniques to observe. They will observe 2-3 different mentors leading hikes as well as activity coordinators leading afternoon activities. Counselor observations will continue in their adopt-a-cabin as well. Specific questions will be posed centering around our training covering how to teach, conflict resolution, and teamwork.

Week 4: Service & Celebration
The final days will be spent celebrating with the camp community doing the special 3-week adventures like Dupont Day, Pretty Place sunrise hike, and assisting with a GLP. But also we will practice the art of service and giving back by doing our best to live by the LOVE woodcraft law: Be kind. Do at least one act of bargaining service each day. Our Leaders-in-Training will pick a project that will be helpful and better the camp community. They will do their best to complete it or contribute to it in a positive way.

One of our biggest goals as an organization with this Leadership-in-Training Program is to help raise future leaders at camp but more importantly to help raise future leaders who will be a positive force in the greater community. Leaders who are more accustomed to responsibility, service, and ownership of ones actions. We can 100% tell you that the campers who have participated in our Trail Blazers Leadership Program transition easier from the camper role to the counselor role because they have already accepted the concept of “giving back.” GRP is a growth-oriented organization. We are also an organization with a mission. With both of these concepts in mind, I can guarantee you that your child will be respected, valued, loved, and cared for while participating in a life changing experience. Your child will be a better person because of the investment you made in him/her to go to camp.

For questions, comments, or more information about Trail Blazers Leadership or any other GRP program please feel free to contact Anne Izard Mead:

Thank you for taking the time to read this.