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Feb 20, 2008, 8:16 AM

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By George Stein - Co-Owner - Dream BIG Day Camp

After spending many summers growing up in a residential camp that was also our family’s business and livelihood, I had the pleasure of working there and subsequently becoming an owner/director for several years. I took a brief hiatus from the camping world at the ripe old age of 39 to “explore” the universe beyond camp. After two years away from camping (which seemed like twenty for me) my wife, Mary, and I decided in early 2006 to create our own camp in Denver, CO called Dream BIG Day Camp. Having one summer under our belts here, I can say that I now have the credentials and vantage point of directing a camp in both the “sleep away camp” world AND the “day camp” world.

Camps, like any industry, vary based on region, market, philosophy, facility, etc. By no means is my experience a truism for all of my colleagues. I am simply relaying my feelings as an owner/director of two private independent camping organizations, one “sleep away” in the northeast and one “day” in the Rocky Mountains. I will refrain from sermonizing about what a camp director’s daily “to do list” is actually comprised of so as not to bore you with all the arduous details.

There are cultural and market factors in Denver that, for us, are substantially different than what we saw in NY but that is really tangential to what the main thrust of this piece is about. Let me also share the fact that we lease a school campus for ten weeks each summer and do not provide transportation or food service for our families. Transportation is arguably the most enormous aspect of most day camp operations from the standpoint of logistical challenges, liability and worry, not to mention the sheer monetary cost of vehicles, fuel and drivers. Food service may be number two on the list. Our model is a bit different as we have neither of these challenges.

When contrasting both of my camp lives what obviously comes to mind first is that campers return home each day at day camp rather than sleeping over for a specific period of time. For me that is significant as I get a reprieve each day (and on the weekends) from the risk and liability that a camp director feels “24/7” at sleep away camp. This is emotionally exhausting because you never really get any kind of respite at sleep away camp! In addition, I no longer face the prospect of an emergency room visit with a child at 2am…unless, of course, it is my own child. When a camper feels ill or sustains an injury the parents typically step in within a matter of minutes, excusing me so I can return to my camp. This is not the case at sleep away camp where nurses and physicians frequently have to spend hours if not days with campers who are infirmed.

After working with children ages 7-16 for many summers, I now have to amend my opinions on program, child care, staffing and other facets of camp based on the fact that my new world revolves around 4-10 year olds. I don’t have a crew that works year round to maintain a facility as many residential camps do nor do I have the anxiety that accompanies that cost and responsibility. When camp is over I load all of my equipment into a storage facility on that final day and the summer is officially over.

A big challenge for me has been how best to appropriate my time given the brevity of each day. No longer can I meet with staff after dinner or in the evening, nor do I like to pull them away from their campers for too long in our abbreviated time together each day. I really try to minimize my time in the office due to the fact that we are a camp community for only six hours each day, five days each week. I feel even more emphatic here that every minute counts!

Mary and I “bucked the trend” here in Denver by offering nothing shorter than a 3 week stay and even encouraging parents to enroll their child in our 6 week or 9 week option. We have to take into account that young people need time to acclimate, feel comfortable and feel safe enough to take risks and derive growth from this experience we call camp. We have far fewer days and hours to get staff properly indoctrinated into the camp values, thus it may take campers a bit more time to realize that “envelope of safety” that Bob Ditter frequently refers to. I recall vividly saying to my wife on day one at 12 noon “Can you believe the day is half over already?” This was bizarre for us. We feel like camp is a blink compared to what was a very long stare which frequently became somewhat of a “glazed over” look.

In my estimation, there is that element of residential camp that simply can never be replicated in a day camp environment. When you have a truly self contained environment that is virtually impervious to influence from the outside world for several weeks at a time, you can foster ideals such as self esteem enhancement, solid peer relationships, personal accountability and massive personal growth. Can this take place at day camp? Sure. Can it be done on the same level? I don’t think so. There are young impressionable minds and bodies imitating the same behaviors but given the nature of day camp, it is a much different dynamic than sleep away camp.

At the end of the day, life for me in this professional capacity is a bit saner and provides more balance than the “all consuming” sleep away camp life. Most of my colleagues from resident camp agree that it MUST consume you in the summer given the enormous risk and liability at hand. There is an aspect of sleep away camp that I simply cannot duplicate here even though we hope to provide all of our campers with wonderful experiences and life long memories. Our task here at Dream BIG is to try and create magic and memories for children by facilitating opportunities for children to build self esteem and independence, make friends, have fun, laugh at themselves, learn both soft skills and hard skills and be a vital part of something communal and larger than themselves. I’d like to feel like my wife and I do create our own magic at Dream BIG.

At the end of the day, for me, I am happy to have made the transition and I am thrilled with what we are doing now. And thankfully I have had vast experience in the residential camp setting which I think has prepared me exceedingly well for this endeavor. Best of luck to the soul who passes me on the trail going the opposite direction…attempting to go from “day” to “sleep away” as a director. I am not sure I would wish it on anyone as they would very rapidly see their anxiety levels multiply tenfold!

Camp is an amazing concept and flourishes all over the world thanks to many caring and passionate individuals who want nothing more than to positively impact a child.

“And our golden ones sail on and on to another land beneath another sky…”
-James Taylor

I am eternally grateful and fortunate to have an opportunity to influence so many while having so much darned fun at the same time! Thank you for your indulgence here.


George Stein and his wife, Mary, own and operate Dream BIG Day Camp in Denver, CO – founded 2006. Prior to Dream BIG, George spent 35 summers as a 3rd generation owner/director of Camp Echo Lake in New York, founded by his grandparents in 1946. During his tenure at the camp, he held every position. George has been involved with the American Camp Association on a local and national level and has chaired the annual Tri-State Camping Conference in New York City in 2000 and 2001, the largest gathering of camping professionals in the world!

George and Mary have two 6 year old twin sons, Will and Morry. He is a graduate of Choate Rosemary Hall and Tufts University, where he played football, basketball and lacrosse. An avid skier and runner – he completed the 2005 NYC marathon. He is currently volunteering on the auction committee at Montessori School of Denver as well as serving on the board of Camp Shoovy, a Jewish camp for children, and Project Morry, a year round program for underprivileged children named after his father, Morry Stein. He has participated in a Celebrity Bull Riding Contest to benefit underprivileged children. His biggest thrill comes from coaching his sons in soccer and dressing up as cartoon characters, ranging from Tigger to Clifford.

To learn more about the Steins and Dream BIG Day Camp go to:

(This post was edited by GeorgeStein on Feb 20, 2008, 8:30 AM)


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