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How to Plan a Summer Camp and Live to Tell About It!

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Not sure where to start when you need to plan a summer camp? Let this camping whiz come to your rescue!

Ahhh…the sound of a crackling campfire. Marshmallows on sticks, puffing up from the heat, ready to drop on a piece of chocolate sandwiched between two crunchy graham crackers. Even those who’ve never experienced this camping tradition delight in the idea of sitting around the fire eating S’mores. But for a child away from home for the first time at church camp, this is one of many memories that serves as a reminder of a life-changing experience.

When I was 12 years old, I attended church camp for the first time. Thursday night after singing songs around the campfire, I decided to follow Jesus. My life was never the same. Years later as a children’s ministry director, I brought hundreds of kids to church camp each summer. I’ve spent many evenings around the campfire, listening to children make that same life-changing commitment to Jesus that I made as a child.

Taking kids to camp enables you to get kids out of their daily element and provide an environment that focuses on relationships, fun, and Christ. Today’s kids are busy and swamped by a fast-paced schedule that rarely gives them the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation, and today’s parents are looking for positive opportunities for their children over the summer months. Church camp is a great way to reach out to your community and provide a positive experience for children that does more than create a lasting memory; it opens the door to a personal relationship with Jesus.

Getting Started

If you’ve never planned a summer camp before, here are a few easy steps to get you packing on your merry way.

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  • Know your purpose. Before diving into the camp planning process, take a look at your children’s ministry’s mission and vision. Then determine how a summer camp can complement and contribute to your ministry. Develop a mission and vision statement for your camp ministry so there’s accountability in the planning process. A mission and vision statement acts as a checkpoint to ensure that everything you plan has a purpose and the focus stays on the ministry.
  • Target your camper audience. Determine which age groups you want to invite to camp. Preteens are an easy target audience because most are emotionally ready to spend a week away from home. If you take younger kids to camp, consider a shorter camp week. Three or four days away from home is a good time frame for younger elementary kids.
  • Choose a camp. Explore your camp options. There are many great camps throughout the United States that have programming already in place. An established camp allows you to bring kids to camp without the responsibilities of directing the camp. Typically, you can bring chaperones who have minimal responsibilities, such as leading a small group of kids from your church. If you’ve never been to camp before, this may be your best introduction to the experience. This is also a great option for small churches who may not have enough campers to rent an entire facility.

If you have a large group of kids attending camp, developing your own program and renting facilities allows you to customize your week to best fit kids’ interests and needs. This option requires a lot more planning, not only in programming, but also in the budget process.

Avoid the Budget Blackhole

It’s important to develop a budget exclusively for camp to ensure that all financial obligations can be met without creating a major deficit. Here’s how.

  • Facility rental — The largest camp expense is typically the rental of camp facilities. Investigate the rental fees of various camps in your area. If your church has a denominational affiliation, ask about the camp associations that usually offer a discounted rate. Ask lots of questions to assure that you have a complete picture of what your financial obligations will be. Good questions to ask the camp before signing a contract are:
  • Is there a general facility rental fee, or is the rental fee based on the number of campers?
  • Does the fee include meals? snacks? If we need to provide our meals, are there kitchen facilities available?
  • Are there extra fees for use of meeting rooms, recreational facilities, or equipment?
  • Is there a discount for camp counselors? Do you require the church to use the camp’s staff nurse or lifeguard, and what’s the cost?
  • What’s the deposit to reserve the camp? What, if any, portion is refundable if I cancel or we’re not able to meet the number of spots reserved?
  • Mode of transportation — Another costly component of camp can be if you decide to provide transportation to and from camp. The most cost-efficient transportation is to have parents drive their children to camp. However, this isn’t always an option. Determine early if you’ll provide transportation, and look into various options. If you use a bus, check to see if you need to provide lodging and meals for the driver during your stay. If you rent vans, make sure you have enough drivers who are eligible to drive under your church’s insurance policy. Factor any transportation costs into camper’s registration fees.
  • Camp headliners — If you decide to hire a speaker or band for your camp, determine ahead of time how much you want to spend, and stay within that budget. Remember you’ll have to pay for your featured guest’s lodging and meals as well as a service fee and possible transportation costs. To help save dollars in this area, use a speaker from your church. If your youth group has a band, ask if they’d like to provide music for your camp week.
  • Nurse budget — Many camps have a staff nurse. But if they don’t, this isn’t the place to scrimp to save a few bucks. With so many kids on medication today, having a camp nurse is a full-time responsibility. To help keep costs down, check with your church members to see if there’s a nurse looking for a volunteer opportunity. If you need to, hire someone from a nursing pool. Parents are entrusting you with precious children; don’t leave the door open for liability by trying to cut costs in this area.
  • How much to charge — Finally, make sure you factor in any counselor fees to your camper’s registration so your chaperones have no costs. Estimate the total number of campers you’ll have, and determine your camper-to-staff ratio ahead of time. It’s always better to overestimate and cut back rather than end up with costs that weren’t planned for ahead of time. Use this step-by-step guide.
  1. Estimate the number of campers and counselors.
  2. Multiply that number by the camp cost per person.
  3. Add in approximate additional costs per camper.
  4. Divide the total number by the number of campers attending.

It’s wise to also add a small amount to each registration for any extra incidentals or for last-minute supplies. Remember, this isn’t a money-making venture. Keeping costs as low as possible enables more children to attend. If you come out ahead financially, use that money to help keep costs down for the following summer.

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