10 Years of Camp Staff #2: Betsy


(there’s Betsy in the back row left with a group of campers in 2006)

Before getting on the plane back to Denver at the American Camp Association Conference in Chicago in 2006, I checked the camp voicemail to see if anyone responded to my job posting about an Assistant Director. Just one message from a woman named Betsy. Turns out, we were sitting next to each other on that flight, and two months later, Betsy joined on full time to help me build the camp! Most of you know Betsy, who did everything around camp and in the business, and helped shape so much of what we do – including launching our Denver Day Camps. Betsy is now the Outdoor Programs Director for Girls Scouts of Colorado!

10 Years of Camp Story #2: Cheley Camps, and the Big Day Camp Breakthrough


In the summer of 1998, I started working as a Unit Director at Cheley Colorado Camps, a world-class resident camp in Estes Park. At Cheley (cheley.com), I quickly made a whole new set of friends and learned that the impactful experience which felt so unique in Wisconsin happens in camps all over!

At a staff meeting that first summer, Brooke Cheley – a fourth generation Director and good friend – said “We need more male staff for Burn Camp.” Without thinking or even knowing what Burn Camp was, I said “I’ll do it!” That week I spent with pediatric burn survivors (noordinarycamps.org) shifted my whole approach to camp and kids. It was the beginning of my dedication to creating inclusive programming and communities.

I spent five summers at Cheley and 15 years volunteering at Burn Camp. In February 2004,  I had a crucial conversation with Jane Sanborn, the wise Executive Director of Sanborn Western Camps (sanbornwesterncamps.com). We discussed what I was working on, and what my goals were, and how impossible the business model seemed for starting a resident camp from scratch. Then she asked: “Why don’t you start a day camp?”

And right then, the path became clear… I realized “I’m going to start a DAY CAMP.”

Celebrating 10 Years of Camp: Story #1: AO Camps is NOT 10 Years Old!

Tommy, age 10Guess what? Camp is NOT 10 years old – the idea for it hatched over 30 years ago! Here’s how it developed:

In the early 1980s, I went off to North Star Camp in northern Wisconsin, a sleep away camp where my Uncle Jimmy had gone in the 1950s.

Back in those days, 10 year olds went to camp for eight weeks – and loved it!  But I didn’t love it the first year – my cabin mates threw my teddy bear in the rafters and played the song “Ebony and Ivory” every day – enough to drive anyone crazy!

I gave North Star another shot the next summer. It went great, and over my years as a camper, I made lots of friends, learned to paddle and sail, got muddy on bog walks, and fell in love with starry nights and music around a campfire.

Pretty early on I decided that one day I’d like to run my own camp. After 15 years of growing from camper, to staff, to camp administrator in Wisconsin, I finally listened to my long-time mentor Jack Weiner, and headed out west…

Morning Coffee and Staff Interviews

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I typically conduct interviews first thing in the morning while the steam from my fresh cup of coffee is still visible to the applicant through our Skype connection. For many, their interview with AO is their first professional one, and the adjectives I’ve heard to describe it, such as ‘intense’ and ‘rigorous’, I wear as a badge of honor. After all, caring for other people’s children in a residential setting is probably the most important job they’ll ever have.

After spending a few minutes talking about camp, and the position they have applied for, I dig in my heels for my first, and favorite interview question: ‘There are a lot of ways you could work not nearly as hard as you have to work at camp, and make significantly more money, knowing that, why do you want this job?’

I hold my breath in anticipation of their answer and love the warm feeling my cold office gets when through the delay and crackle of Skype an applicant talks about things like: providing quality experiences for campers, being a positive role-model, creating a safe and inclusive community at camp; or talks about their passion for working with children and being in nature (yes, the fact we are in the Colorado mountains is typically not lost on applicant).

Being a Director at Camp is kind of like being the mayor of a small town. You need to make sure the water runs, the heat works, the food is served on time, and that your constituents (campers) are happy. There is no more important way to influence that, than to make sure my city council (counselors) are the right ones for the job.

Sleep Away: Friday

What a last day at camp we had today! After our french toast and fruit breakfast, 2-weekers got their bathing suits and were off to the Eldorado Springs Pool! The weather was hot, sunny, and perfect weather for our adventure. We enjoyed our bagged lunches poolside, applied sunscreen often, drank a ton of water, and most importantly had a lot of fun!

1-weekers had a great time at their Camp-A-Palooza, doing just about anything they wanted around camp this morning. Archery, crafts, canoeing, swimming, fishing, and playing games to name a few!

Packing, exchanging addresses, hugs and a few tears were about before dinner tonight as campers wound down for the day. After a delicious dinner of turkey, homemade bread, soup, and veggies, campers put on some warm clothes and were off to closing campfire. We had a great night of songs, some inspiring quotes read by campers and counselors, stories and reflections, and a wonderful Key Log ceremony. Campers and staff thanked people who have helped their journey either in camp or outside of camp, and gave some very touching acknowledgements.

We look forward to a yummy breakfast tomorrow, goodbyes (until next summer!), and saying hi to family and friends again! Thanks to everyone who made this summer so successful.

Sleep Away: Thursday!

We had a very busy second-to-last full day of camp today, starting right after breakfast with our last day of activities. Climbing explored new routes on the crag, sailing successfully named every part of a boat before getting on the water, theater perfected their performances for the Talent Show, and hiking enjoyed the views from Thunder Ridge! Outdoor Exploration had an awesome time examining plants, hiking around camp, and playing some nature games! Crafts finished up their beautiful community art project with Kylee to share with camp this evening.

The 1-week campers had a great morning with Amanda at the archery range, followed by fishing with Dana!

We were very happy to welcome back our backpackers this afternoon, who were very excited to share that they had perfect weather and beautiful sights all throughout their 3-day journey. They also set a really impressive time climbing the 4 mile, uphill hike- only 3 hours and 15 minutes!! Great job!

For third period today, campers had a blast at the Camp Carnival- with face paint, throw-a-sponge-at-a-director, and so many games! Ring toss, balloon darts, tire swing toss, hula hoop rolling, bucket ball, hit-over-the-cans, and ping pong ball throwing were challenging- but campers did great! Singing camp songs to counselors earned campers more tickets to play games, and we went through just about every song in the book!

Tonight was the much anticipated Camp Talent Show, and wow do we have some very brave and talented campers and counselors! We had pianists, amazing singing voices, funny comedy acts, some great jokes, skits from our theater program, a group jam session, community art, some air instrumentalists, some very accurate Gollum impressions, poetry, dancing, and more!

We can’t wait to spend the day at the Eldorado Springs Pool tomorrow!

Sleep Away: Wednesday!

As camp is winding down to the last few days, everyone is sad, excited, anxious, and energetic all at once! The day started with waffles and fruit for breakfast this morning, followed by the first day of our second-half-of-the-week activities- climbing, theater, sailing, outdoor exploration, and crafts were back in swing with new campers! Some talented climbers were very excited to belay with Ben and help teach other campers the technique, too. Theater practiced some awesome skits for the talent show tomorrow night, sailing practiced maneuvering in pairs and on their own, and crafts worked on painting their paper mache creations with Kylee!

1-weekers had a great time hiking with Olivia and Annie! They also enjoyed their horseback riding adventure this morning with Brenden and Daniel.

After lunch and rest hour, campers got to try out their Open Free programs that they planned last night- meditation, tie-dying, hiking / tree saving, the jam session, and frisbee golf were a hit with both the campers that led them and those who joined in! (If your camper brings home tie-dye that they made with Jen and Kylee, please wash alone in cold water to allow the ink to set in before washing with other items. Thanks!)

After dinner, evening program began with some favorite songs with Tom, followed by some energetic games with Jen! Shin-ball got everyone moving around and trying to tag other campers’ and counselors’ shins with bean bags. We sang some closing songs with Tom, prepared for tomorrow, opened some mail, and were off to bed. We can’t wait to welcome back Jenna, Jay, and our backpackers tomorrow and hear all about their adventure!

Happy Tuesday from Sleep Away!

Blueberry pancakes started off our day here at camp! After breakfast, campers cleaned their cabins, sunscreened up, and prepared for their second day of first-half-of-the-week activities! Sailing learned assemble their own boats, outdoor exploration learned all about owls and dissected owl pellets, crafts made fairy houses and paper mache, and archery worked on their accuracy. The 1-weekers enjoyed Wally the climbing wall! We were also excited to send off our backpackers this morning for their 3-day adventure through Rocky Mountain National Park. We can’t wait to hear all about it on Thursday!

After lunch, activities continued and we enjoyed some Organized Free time. Swimming in the lake, building animal houses, fishing, playing games in the field, and making lanyards were some popular choices!

For evening program, we started outside in the sun playing some group games and singing a lot of songs! The Handshake game lead by Annie and Jessi was a lot of fun and a great way to get to know everyone better! Jen lead Zebraconious tag, where campers tag the back of other campers’ and counselors’ calves and help tag other players back into the game when they are out. After tag, we headed into the Big Hall to plan Open Free period for tomorrow and Thursday. Campers shared what they’re interested in doing and leading during this space, and they had some amazing ideas! Meditating on the dock, tie-dyeing, frisbee golf, hiking / marking trees, making music, and acting were some of the activities campers came up with to lead and participate in during their third period spaces for the next few days. We can’t wait to see how these new programs go!

Sleep Away: Monday

A yummy breakfast of bacon, egg, and cheese, quesadillas started off our morning, before 2-week campers jumped into their new round of activities. Paddling, sailing, archery, crafts, and sports & games all enjoyed the beautiful weather before lunch! 1-weekers enjoyed some climbing with Ben and Jessi this morning, as well as fishing with Daniel and Olivia!

After macaroni and cheese with chili for lunch, and a well earned rest hour, 1-week campers did awesome in a group team building circuit with their counselors! They also decorated water bottles, played games, and sang some songs. 2-week campers continued their activities with theater, outdoor exploration, fishing, and horseback riding! Backpacking practiced hiking with their packs, double checked all of their equipment, and can’t wait until they head out on their adventure tomorrow morning!

For evening program, after a delicious taco night, we started off singing some songs with Tom! “Sloopy,” and “Lean on Me” were on the top of the list. Campers and counselors played some goofy rounds of Ship Island before heading to their Embers locations. We used yarn to make a web connecting us with things such as- why we love camp, why we came to camp, and what we’ve learned at camp. We then turned that yarn into bracelets so we can keep those things in mind this week! We also enjoyed some S’mores with our cabin mates and counselors.

We can’t wait to send backpacking off on their journey, and continue activities tomorrow!