Planning an Orthodox Summer Youth Camp

By Fr. Michael Anderson

Also see: Camp Planning Checklist


The Orthodox Church in America has one of the largest networks of Orthodox summer camping and rally programs in North America. They are some of the most successful and dynamic youth ministry efforts in our Church. Thousands of Orthodox (and non-Orthodox) children and youth throughout North America participate in these programs that are dedicated to building up relationships with each other, with hundreds of dedicated adult volunteers, and with Christ. Our summer camps and rallies offer children, youth, and adults an experience of what daily life in an Orthodox community can be like.

Naturally, a tremendous amount of work goes into these programs. For someone who might want to start a program in their area, it can seem overwhelming. An article such as this can never cover everything that arises when planning such a program. However, with some organization, help, and a whole lot of faith and dedication, any area can start an Orthodox summer camp. All of our camps, from Rhode Island to California and from Canada to Texas, were started by volunteers like yourself. This article is designed to help a camp director, or potential camp director, organize, publicize and operate a summer camping program.

The Tasks Ahead

The first task for someone who wants to start a summer youth program is to determine the precise goal they hope to accomplish. This will then clarify several points for the potential director. A clearly defined goal will directly determine aspects of your program such as its length, type of facilities, schedule, and daily activities.

For example, if the goal of a program is to expose Orthodox children to a daily worship cycle and give them an opportunity to meet other Orthodox Christians their own age, this can be accomplished in a three-day program. The schedule could consist of regular worship at various points of the day, mingled with activities that would build relationships among the participants. Such a program is more of a rally than a camp and could have a less structured schedule.

If the goal of the program is to immerse participants in an Orthodox community where everyone prays, works, learns, and plays together, this will require more time. This type of program will also have a more structured schedule. Such a schedule could offer opportunities for participants to be responsible for various parts of everyday "camp life." These might include work assignments, fuller liturgical services where participants read, sing and serve, educational sessions, and opportunities for the older participants to supervise the younger. There are also differences depending on whether you are trying to attract participants from your parish, deanery, diocese or a pan-Orthodox group of parishes. Before you continue in your planning make sure your vision is clear.

Your next task is to receive the appropriate blessings for such a project. First, contact your parish priest with what you would like to do. Be as specific as possible. Give him an idea about how many campers you expect (it will probably be a small number to begin with), names of adults you think would be willing to help, and potential facilities. A rough outline of a basic schedule will give him an idea as to what you are planning and what to expect. The outline should include wake-up and lights out times, worship services, meal times, educational sessions, and other activities such as sports, games, crafts, and swimming. Once you have received the priest's blessing, you or your parish priest must present your proposal to the bishop. If you are attempting to have a pan-Orthodox program, ask him to contact his brother bishops in the area.

After you have the blessings of both your priest and bishop, you are ready to proceed. Remember: keep them informed about what you are doing and what successes and obstacles you are facing.

When you have accomplished this, you will have shown that you are committed to the program and you have the skills necessary to pull it off (tenacity, perseverance, leadership, and obedience). Now comes the real work. Satan does not want you to succeed. You are planning a program that over time could be life-changing and faith-assuring to hundreds and hundreds of children, youth and adults. You are involved in holy work and Satan will be against you. Remember the words of St. Paul, "If Christ is for us, who can stand against us." Keep vigilant and faithful. Obstacles can be overcome.

There are many ways to organize the tasks yet to be completed. For the sake of this article I am distinguishing between "pre camp," "at camp," and "post camp" tasks.

Pre-Camp Work

Most of your effort will be in your pre camp work. Pre camp preparation falls into four areas: staff, facilities, campers, and program.

Staff Probably one of the most crucial and challenging tasks you will face is recruiting dedicated and talented adult volunteers. It is important to involve others as early as you possibly can. Running an Orthodox youth camp is too difficult a task for one person. If you are to start a camp, you will have to delegate. Talk about the camp with friends. Get ideas. Find out what types of talents, skills and interests people have and ask if they would be willing to use those God-given gifts at camp. Remember, asking someone if he or she would be willing to organize the sports activities for one week is much less threatening than a general request for "help."

Once you have identified some people to assist you, make sure everyone understands the goal of your program (that's why it is so important to have the goal in writing!). One of the best ways to do this is to arrange a working meeting with all your staff. While this is often difficult when all of our adult volunteers are just that, volunteers, the camps that have such meetings are the longest lasting and fastest growing ones in our Church. Shorter, similar meetings are also good to build into your camp schedule. These meetings give you some time for planning in case of rain and provide a place for a certain amount of venting and fellowship among staff. This addition can make long and busy days more manageable. This is especially true if you have a longer program.

Above all, after you have people assigned, be sure everyone understands their job, the general policies of the program, and the chain of command if there is an accident. For example, if there is an incident of drug or alcohol abuse or other self-destructive behavior, the program director must be contacted immediately. He or she will then speak with the person or persons involved and arrange for phone calls to their parents. This may sound obvious, but there are those who may think that the incident is just between the participant and them and that the director or parents do not need to be informed.

As you talk with people about helping at camp, there are certain essential roles you must fill if you are going to have a safe camp.

Every summer camping program must have:

  • A camp director (one person, who may have assistants)
  • A registered nurse, doctor, or equivalent who is "onsite" for the entire program
  • A certified lifeguard who is also certified in first aid (it is best if they also have their WSI -- Water Safety Instructor certification).
  • Two adult counselors for every "cabin" or "group"

In addition, you may want to find people to fill the following positions:

  • A Christian education session coordinator.
  • A games/sports coordinator.
  • A craft coordinator.

Delegating tasks to others requires more planning, but will make your time at camp infinitely more enjoyable. Make sure that all ideas for activities and education sessions are presented to you before you get to camp. This ensures that each activity will be given an appropriate amount of time, and that you know what will be going on during the sessions. Set dates for when you want all materials, outlines, etc. submitted to you. It should be two to four weeks before camp at the latest!

Facilities The goal of your program will tell you what type of facility you need. You may be able to sleep in tents on parish or diocesan property. The diocese may already have a center that could fit your needs. Many dioceses talk about buying or building their own camping grounds and retreat center. Costs may be higher per camper, but it can advantageous to rent a facility since the owner is then responsible for keeping the facilities up to state code and may have staff available to assist you.

When looking for facilities, it is good to start as early as possible, often a year or more ahead of time. Many people make the mistake of thinking they can wait till January or even March. By that time all the good facilities are already booked. Rental camp facilities are highly in demand and difficult to obtain. Often when trying to book a camp facility, you may have to take an off week or a shorter amount of time to build a relationship with the owner. Once you have established that your group is reliable, pays its bills and doesn't destroy property, onwers are happy to provide you what you need (especially if you are attracting more and more campers).

As you look for your facility, keep in mind the types of activities you would like to have during your program. You'll want to make sure that the facility can accommodate them. Some essential things to check are:

  • Does it have a place which is conducive to worship services?
  • Are the "cabins" or sleeping quarters clean?
  • Do the activities you want require special facilities (pool, lake, canoes, horseback riding, etc.)?
  • Are there enough buildings to accommodate all your activities (Christian education, crafts, etc.), campers, and staff?

    There is nothing worse than enlisting someone to help for a specific activity only to arrive at camp to realize you don't have an appropriate facility for him or her to use.

The facilities you choose will also affect the meals for your program. If you are renting a facility, you will want to discuss with your adult volunteers whether you want to cook the food yourselves or find a place that will cook it for you. The advantage of doing the cooking yourselves is that facility costs are often less. However, some facilities will require you to eat their food when you rent from them. You also need to consider whether you, or one of your volunteers, is prepared to buy the food, bring it to camp, and spend the time cooking for anywhere from 30-200 people. You also need to consider whether your program is scheduled to take place during a fasting period such as the St. Peter and Paul or Dormition fast. Your facility may not be used to cooking vegetarian meals. You also need to be aware that camps owned by certain groups (e.g., Seven-Day Adventists) may cook only vegetarian meals.

Campers Campers are what camp is all about. They are the reason we do everything we do and put up with everything we put up with. They are our first priority. Unfortunately, they are often the last ones to be recruited. When starting a camping program it is important to begin publicizing the new camp as soon as possible. Articles in parish newsletters, diocesan and Church-wide papers are excellent ways to get the word out.

You will also need to produce and begin distributing camper applications. Applications should include a physical examination by their doctor, insurance information, any allergies or medical conditions, parental release statements, and contact information so that parents may be contacted immediately if there is a problem. Many camps also include questionnaires about financial need in their applications and offer scholarships to needy campers. Scholarship funds can be raised through fund raisers throughout the year at participating parishes, from diocesan funds, or from individuals who know what a positive experience camp is for a child. It is a good idea to put a person in charge of applications and scholarships who can manage them as they come in. This person can then assist the director in making "cabin" and staff assignments. He or she can also help the nurse compile and distribute camper health cards to the staff. These cards should have campers' allergies and other physical conditions written on them so that the staff know a camper's limitations. When publicizing your program, make sure the address of the camp and directions to it are clear. Also, be sure to list drop-off and pickup times. On the flyer announce that no campers will be registered before the appointed time, so parents should not try to come early. Also, make sure parents know that they must pick up their children promptly on the last day of the camping program. Encourage the parents to attend a closing ceremony where they can get a taste of what their children experienced at camp. This will ensure that they not only come on time, but that they know something about what their child's experience at camp was like.

Program Basics We have already mentioned aspects of program content in the previous sections. There are, however, some other items that need to be addressed before you get to camp.

First and most importantly, have the schedules prepared, copied, and distributed to your staff before camp starts. Don't attempt to create it while you are there! Being able to hand out a solid (yet flexible) schedule to the staff before the campers' arrival will help make the first couple of days of camp run smoothly.

A sample schedule could include the following:

Morning Worship
Breakfast -- approximately 30 minutes
Cabin Cleaning
Activity I -- 50 minutes (Crafts, Sports, Education Sessions, Waterfront, Special Activities)
Activity II -- 50 minutes
Lunch -- approximately 30 minutes
Cabin Time -- 30 minutes (all campers must be quietly in the cabins reading, writing letters, etc.) -- this is a great time for the staff meeting.
Activity III -- 50 minutes
Activity IV -- 50 minutes
Activity V -- 50 minutes
Evening Worship
Dinner -- approximately 30 minutes
Camp-wide Activity (large group game, camp fire, etc.)
Lights Out (times may vary for different age groups)

Schedules should be distributed to all staff and posted in the various "cabins" and at the various activities. Make sure to remind your staff that they need to be flexible. Situations will arise -- like rain! -- that will require the schedule to change. While you should have an alternate plan ready (rainy-day activities, etc.) it is most important that staff react positively to such changes since campers often take their attitude cues from staff persons.

As Orthodox Christians we believe our worship as much as our faith defines who we are. Therefore, a good amount of thought should go into planning the worship services during the program. Questions to consider include: what type of services will you have?; how will they be served?; and how will the campers be encouraged to actively participate?. Some camps have a liturgy, others have daily matins and vespers, still others have only morning and evening prayers. It is important to meet with your parish priest and discuss what would be most beneficial to your program and what is really feasible concerning music and participation. List all appropriate materials, and determine who will bring the items to camp. Include time in the schedule for choir rehearsals and instruction about the services. We teach our children by example. The way you approach the worship services will teach the campers a lot about the place of worship in our lives.

One of the largest debates that can emerge during a program is the campers "request" for free time. These requests increase as the campers get older. There are many ways to deal with this. St Eugene's Camp in California offers campers evening "electives" from which they can choose. Sign-up sheets are distributed and filled out at lunch. Other camps offer a general sports/games time where campers can go to assigned supervised areas that have various sports equipment and games. Campers then spend that time in one of those areas doing whatever they choose. It is important to keep a healthy balance of structure and free-time. Be aware that no matter how much free time you give campers, they will ask for more.

Lastly, depending on where you are located and what type of activities you would like to do, you may want to consider going on "camp time." This entails a one or two-hour time change (ahead or back) so that you can have more or less day light hours depending on your situation. All staff and campers are instructed to change their watches. The only person who should have the "real" time is the director. He or she may need to arrange schedules with the owners of the facility or contact someone if there is an emergency. One advantage to "camp time" is that it creates a real "otherness" to the program. (Note: Remember to inform parents of the time difference so that phone calls can be made at the appropriate times.)

At Camp

By the time you get to camp, everything should be organized and in place. Everyone (including yourself) should know what to expect from each day. Despite planning, however, expect the unexpected. Some of the most important things to be ready for are first day activities, emergencies, and injuries.

First Day The first day of most camps begins in the mid to late afternoon. A basic first day schedule will include registrations, cabin time, an opening prayer service, camp orientation, dinner, a camp-wide activity, evening prayers and lights out. I can guarantee that this day will be awkward. Dealing with arrivals, registration, and the interactions between staff and campers, staff and staff, and campers and campers is almost always frustrating. The first night of camp is hardly ever a time when the campers actually sleep (neither is the last night). However, the first day is also the campers' first impression of what camp will be like and therefore needs to be given special attention.

The first thing to do to minimize this awkwardness is to have staff arrive early. This serves several purposes. It gives you time to set up registrations and take the staff on a tour of the facility if they are not yet familiar with it. Schedules and camper lists can be distributed if they haven't been already. Staff can get settled in their bunks to be better prepared for the campers. Staff people who are in charge of specific activities (sports, crafts, etc.) can also make sure they have all their supplies and set up their areas. The more prepared they are, the easier everyone's job will be.

Put someone in charge of registration. Whether you have tables set up by age or last name, or just one table, you will need one person who can make sure everyone's paper work is complete and that campers find their cabins. This should not be you. You will be inundated with greetings and questions from campers, parents, and staff. You need to be free to address these. In addition, the nurse should be on hand to collect any medications (including aspirin) that the campers may have brought with them.

Prepare activities for the campers to do in their cabins after they register. One counselor should be in each cabin to welcome campers and help them settle in. Activities such as creating cabin banners and bed name tags will help counselors keep campers in their cabin until the first scheduled activity, which is usually a prayer service and orientation. This is a good opportunity for the counselor to get to know his or her campers. He or she should know all of them by name by the end of the first day. If everyone from a cabin has arrived and they are still waiting for the first activity, the counselor can take them on a tour of the camp or out to play a game.

As mentioned above, your first activity should be a prayer service followed by camper orientation. Check with your parish priest about what he thinks will be appropriate for the worship service. Many camps use the molieban service for the beginning of instruction. Make sure you are appropriately prepared for the service (copies of the service, necessary liturgical items, etc.). Never assume that campers can't sing or chant. Most of our young people have grown up in the Church and know more than we think!

Orientation should not be too long. It should consist of staff introductions (so campers know who is in charge) and basic camp rules. One camp makes the rule talk a bit more fun by having skits to demonstrate each rule. After each skit, campers try to guess what the rule being shown is. Another way to do this is to ask the campers what they think are some rules that everyone should abide by to make camp as fun, happy and safe as possible. Use their suggestions to introduce and discuss the rules that will be enforced during the program.

Either just before or just after the orientation, have a really fun camp-wide activity. Games like "the Blob" or "Octopus tag" are great for setting the tone that everyone is at camp to be together despite age. It also lets everyone know that the idea is to have fun! There are many books on large group noncompetitive games. Go to your local library or book store for ideas.

Emergencies Despite all your careful planning, incidents will arise that weren't supposed to happen. For example, despite very dedicated counselors, a camper will sneak off and you won't have any idea where he or she is. Other emergencies can include fires, dangerous animals on site, storms, and power outages. It is absolutely imperative to have a plan in place to address these situations. As the director, it will fall to you to decide. Check ahead with local hospital and ambulance services for their procedures and phone numbers. Emergency phone numbers should be placed in conspicuous places near telephones. Directions to the camp should be kept on file for emergency personnel. Decide upon an emergency signal, such as a certain ring of a bell, or blow of a whistle, which can be heard anywhere on the site. This signal can be given to alert everyone that an emergency has arisen and that they are to go to a designated place to await instructions. Assign staff to be responsible for various procedures during an emergency (i.e., someone to direct campers away from a site, another person to keep them involved in some type of activity during the emergency).

Injuries We make every effort to provide the safest possible environments for our camps. But children still get hurt. If and when it happens, don't blame yourself. Fault is not the primary issue. The real issue is how you respond. Make sure that you have all of the campers' insurance information, and the phone numbers where their parents can be reached. After calling emergency services, immediately call the parents to let them know what has happened and what you are doing. If the camper needs hospital care, you should encourage the parents to come as soon as possible. Many hospitals and doctors will not even touch a child without written consent from a parent.

Hopefully, you will never have to deal with this problem. Many camps have never had a situation where a camper was injured. There is, however, no excuse for not being ready to handle a situation when it does occur. Never assume that it can't happen at your camp!

Post Camp

Post camp work shouldn't be overwhelming. The people who were in charge of various activities should know that they are responsible for neatly packing up their materials or returning them to people who lent them to the camp. This leaves only a few tasks for the camp director to do.

First, schedule an evaluation meeting with your staff. Go over the program and discuss what worked and what needs improvement. Show your staff that their ideas are important to you. These meetings help create a strong sense of community among the staff, and allow for necessary "debriefing." Pass around pictures from the program and share memories (these pictures also make great advertising for next year's program). Delegate one person to write an article for the Church newspaper and for the OCA WebSite. Programs that have such meetings usually have staff that comes back each year and often attract new staff.

Next, set dates for next year. If you are renting a facility, try to lock in dates for the next year when you are settling your account. Hopefully, they will have had a positive experience with your group and might be willing to talk to you about making camp more affordable or giving you a better time slot. Let us know your schedule for next year as soon as possible so that we can post it on the OCA WebSite for next year.

Lastly, get a good rest (one or two weeks)! Only after you are feeling rested, should you return to the first paragraph of this article. Running a camping or rally program is very cyclical. Once you have finished one year, it is time to begin planning for the next year. Remember, keep other people involved. The more you rely on others to help you, the healthier and longer lasting the program will be.

A Final Disclaimer While the attempt was made to make this article as comprehensive as possible, inevitably some things were overlooked. As these items arise, contact the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries or others who can help you with them. Throughout your work, remember to stay calm. "With God, all things are possible."

Important! All youth activities related to the parishes, deaneries, and dioceses of the Orthodox Church in America (this include camps and rallies) are required to adhere to the safety guidelines outlined in Doing the Right Thing. This publication was distributed to all parishes, clergy, church school coordinators, camp directors, and youth coordinators in the spring of 1996.