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Cabins in need of counselors

As children return to Christian summer camps, administrators scramble for staff

Krislund Camp & Retreat Center/Facebook

Cabins in need of counselors

Nearly 400 campers are registered for Krislund Camp and Retreat Center’s programs this summer, and they are scheduled to begin arriving at the Spring Mills, Pa., camp in less than two weeks. Leadership staff started training Sunday, with the rest of the staff arriving today. But not as many staff members will be coming as Executive Director Josh Boyd had hoped.

Boyd set out to hire almost 30 people, but so far has only hired 11. Six out of seven of Krisland’s international applicants hired through programs like Camp America had their travel visas denied last-minute. “We had already signed paperwork and had them hired and everything,” Boyd said. Because of that unexpected drop, the camp had to cancel its traveling community day camp program to put all of its staffers toward its residential and day camps.

In their third year after COVID-19, summer camps across the United States are seeing a rebound in the number of campers, but it hasn’t necessarily applied to staff members. Many summer camps are having trouble filling staff positions, reflecting a trend across multiple industries. A handful of camps have even closed for the summer due to the shortages.

Gregg Hunter is president and CEO of the Christian Camp and Conference Association, an organization representing 863 member camps. Hunter said the association noted camp staffing problems starting in 2018, but the issue worsened after COVID-19 arrived. Many camps reopened in 2021 but experienced severe staffing shortages. This year, Hunter said, camps are still trying to fill hundreds of openings, “significantly more” than in other years.

Jacob Sorenson, founder and director of Sacred Playgrounds, a research group focusing on Christian camp ministries, said camper registration before the pandemic had been increasing since the 2008 recession.

While Sorenson has only heard of one or two camps that have shut down for the summer over staffing problems, he said at least half of the more than 30 camps he works with have adjusted their programs due to a lack of staff. Last week while Sorenson led a camp staff training session, the director left to interview a potential employee.

“They were in their final week of staff training,” said Sorenson. His organization plans to ask camps about their shortfalls in a survey later this year. “We don’t know the numbers because it’s still playing out — camps are still trying to hire and desperately trying to fill gaps in their staffing roles.”

Sorenson points to low unemployment as a factor: Young adults have many more options for work right now. Leadership positions that typically go to junior and seniors in college are the hardest to fill since such students may be looking for specialized internships. Other former employees may also feel burnout, exhausted by the long hours of summer camp and overwhelmed by trying to manage camp programs while understaffed.

Specialized staff roles like high-ropes coordinators, back-country guides, lifeguards, and horse wranglers can be difficult for camps to cover, as are kitchen workers. But at least one camp said it had filled its positions.

Westminster Woods, a 400-acre camp in Fall River, Kan., took a pandemic break in 2020 but reinstated its summer programs last year. It ended up with fewer applications and staff hires. Assistant director of camping ministries Diane Wheeler said the pandemic made recruiting tricky because colleges limited campus visits and camps could not host traditional recruiting events.

But this year Wheeler said that administrators received more applicants than they needed, almost completely through word-of-mouth recruiting from former and current staff members.

Julia Starnes, 19, just finished her freshman year as an architecture major at Washington University in St. Louis. She started coming to Westminster Woods as a camper in middle school, and she said that she applied for essentially any possible position at camp. “I felt a lot of pressure from some of my peers this year that if you don’t get a good internship every single year you’re studying, you’re not going to get a good job,” she said. “But I just value this so much to be out here and be a part of this community.” This summer she’s working in the camp’s kitchen.

Only three of this year’s summer staffers at Westminster Woods have never before attended the camp — and all are friends of former or current staff members, according to Wheeler. She said the camp’s leadership development program for high school students boosts their future workforce: “We’re actually starting recruiting when they’re a freshman in high school, basically.”

Starnes said she thinks her work experience at summer camp will benefit her future professional development. “I’m still growing as a person and taking time to build myself and building my faith,” she said. “That will give me a firm foundation for everything else I do.”

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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