I’m really excited to share today’s post with you all. In my third installment in The Path We Take series we focus on Curt “Moose” Jackson, the creative and dynamic force behind the Summer Camp Programming website among other projects.
While I’ve yet to meet Curt in person, I’ve long admired his brilliant and creative programming ideas – and the fact that he has been able to bring camping professionals from around the world together to share ideas in his roundtable compilations.
(click here for information on how to participate in future email roundtables)
Now that I’ve had a chance to learn a little bit more about Curt through this process, I can also say that I admire his candor (he got real folks – and it was awesome!) and his drive to continue to explore, learn, create, and improve the level of programming we offer in the camping industry.
I hope you enjoy learning about Curt’s journey as much as I did, and if you have any questions, comments, or just want to tell Curt how awesome he is, tell us about it in the comment section below.
Tell us about yourself.
Yikes, this is a broad question. It all started when I was a twinkle in my mother’s eye.
I grew up an only child to a loving single parent in Southern California. My mom was a nurse who worked long hours and I was a latch-key kid. She passed away from cancer when I was 15. Unfortunately, nobody in my family wanted to take on the burden of raising a teenager. So after getting tossed around a bit between aunts and uncles my grandparents took me in. Six months later my grandfather passed away. Those two years were rough and had a big impact on my life, positive and negative.
I’ve always wanted to be an actor or a rock star, but I know that if I really did either of those careers I wouldn’t enjoy them. Besides, camp gives me the chance to do both with camp skits and camp songs. As a young kid I wanted to be a professional baseball player or a magician. Come to find out, I wasn’t very good at either of them, but I still like to pull out some magic tricks when campers are around.
I like road trips, the ocean, Moose Tracks ice cream, campfires and the smell of freshly cut grass.
I don’t like inconsiderate people, Brussel sprouts, humidity, and movie theaters that don’t have stadium seating.
How many years have you been involved in camping?
My first camp job was when I was 21. I was counselor for an outdoor education program in the San Bernardino mountains of Southern California. I had seen the ad in the newspaper and thought, “That sounds interesting.”. I was so nervous that first week of having campers…er, students. I just knew these 6th graders were not going to like me. It all turned out fine, of course.
I’m in my early 40s now, and since that first job I have worked at a few resident camps, a few day camps, a couple of parks and recreation departments and a couple of hotels. Having worked at various places has given me different perspectives on camp as I have seen it done numerous ways and have worked for a variety of supervisors, good and bad. I’m thankful I’ve been able to gather all those different experiences.
What positions have you held?
At camps I have been a counselor, lead outdoor ed. instructor, village chief (unit leader), ropes course director, camp office manager, program director, assistant camp director, and day camp director. I don’t currently work at a camp, though I am seriously thinking about getting back into it because I miss it so much. Instead, I write about camp programming.
How did you become involved in camping?
When I was in the 5th grade my school took us to a resident camp for outdoor education. It was great. I had such a positive experience that I figured it would be fun to go for summer camp there. We really didn’t have the money, but somehow my mom scraped enough together to pay for the registration.
I was so excited to go.
I got there via a bus and we were shuffled into a large room where campers who had already arrived were playing dodgeball. Nobody welcomed me and nobody talked to me. I just stood off to the side. I was nervous because I didn’t know anyone. I was assigned a counselor and immediately we went to the cabin. There were no get-to-know-you games or anything like that. It was obvious the counselor knew half of the boys already. He showed them all the attention. They were a nasty little group of boys, too. The four of them picked on us “first years” relentlessly. The counselor did nothing. He would sometimes laugh and say, “Relax, they’re just messing with you.” It was a horrible experience.
(Click here to read the full story – AND to get some great tips on how to be a great camp counsellor)
Years later, when I saw the ad in the paper for outdoor education camp counselors, I was hesitant, remembering the awful time I had as a camper. However, I thought, “If I get this job, my campers will never feel the way I did. I am going to make it the best experience possible.” That has been my guiding light ever since.
What was your “ah-ha” moment when you knew you wanted to be a camp professional?
I absolutely loved my first camp job. I loved my co-workers, the activities, the campers…everything. But I’m sort of a gypsy at heart. I like to move around, do different things, meet new people. I never saw myself staying at one place, camp or other job, for too long.
The ah-ha moment, though, came when I was working as the program director at a Boys and Girls Club resident camp. I got a call from a director at YMCA camp who had heard good things about me and he wanted me to apply for the program director spot at his camp. I was thinking, “This is crazy that someone I don’t know is calling to essentially offer me a job. I must be good at this work.”
What did you study in school? How has it helped you in your camp career?
I’m about to get real here. Watch out.
I don’t have a degree. It’s almost taboo to say. Truth is, it’s prevented me from getting a lot of jobs I’ve wanted. I went to a few community colleges and even attended helicopter flight school for a bit. I didn’t have the patience, focus or desire to finish any of it. You see, I have always been good at school without really trying hard, but it has always bored me as well.
Unfortunately, no matter how good I am at what I do, most camps won’t even set up an interview, because I don’t have a degree. In fact, during the conversation that I had with that YMCA camp director that I mentioned in your last question, he asked me what I had my degree in and I told him that I didn’t have one. He sighed and told me that he couldn’t hire me. I said, “What!? You called ME about this position. You obviously know that I am qualified and I can tell that you like what you’ve heard from me so far, but because I don’t have a degree I can’t even throw my hat in the ring for the position you have available?” And I’ll never forget what he said. “Curt, I would hire you over 100 college graduates. You have the right personality for this job and the experience and creativity that I am looking for, but our organization will not allow me to hire you without a degree.”
I understand, and agree, that hiring someone with a degree makes sense. It not only shows that they have a certain amount of education, but it also shows commitment to completing big tasks. There are a number of other advantages to hiring someone who has attended a four-year university program as well. I get it. I’ve never had any hard feelings towards him or anyone else who can’t or won’t hire me for that reason.
Since then I have gained even more experience in camping, recreation, hotel management and in life. Yet, most organizations still won’t even look at me for a management position. Not sticking with school is one of my biggest regrets.
What was your “path” to your current position?
Currently, I work for myself. I have my blog on camp programming but I also put together books on camp programming. Some of the books are a compilation of other camp professional’s ideas and some are written by me. I do a few other things on the side to supplement what I earn from my site.
My path of getting the experience I have has been a variety of things. I have worked for different organizations, as I stated earlier, and moved up the ranks at a few of them. I also have a background in working at hotels. I’ve been a bellman, front desk clerk, night auditor and a front office manager.
I did the same things at those hotels that I do at my camp and recreation jobs. I look at what they are doing and come up with ideas, processes and tweaks that will provide a better experience for the guests, a better work environment for the staff and make the hotel more money. It’s how my brain works, I guess.
I started as a part-time night auditor at the last hotel I worked at. It was just supposed to be a side job. I made a few suggestions to the General Manager during the two months I had that job, and boom, when the front office manager decided to leave I was immediately offered the job. Since then, I have realized that hotel management is something I was good at but didn’t enjoy. Recreation and camping is where my heart’s at.
So, to answer your question, my path has been all over the place. I walk a road that curves and forks and has many bumps. A straight path would have been to dull for me. J
If there was one thing you could have done differently early in your career, what would it be?
I would have gotten my degree. Other than that, I can’t think of anything else I would have done differently. Well, maybe I would have learned to play the guitar as well. There’s nothing like the sound of an acoustic guitar around a campfire.
What is your advice to a “shiny new” camp director?
Treat your staff like you treat your campers. Guide them. Protect them. Mentor them. Check-in on them. Recognize their efforts. Encourage them. Listen to them. Challenge them. Make sure they feel you have their back. Do all those things, but also make sure you are firm with them and show them some discipline. Most of all, though, be a good role model. My motto is “Happy Staff, Happy Camp”.
My other advice is to visit my site for great programming ideas and more. There are not many sites online for camp professionals. You’ll find a lot of useful nuggets that will help you with your job in the pages and posts of sites like mine and The Camp Nerd.
What advice would you offer future camp directors?
Get that degree. I have found that it usually doesn’t matter what you get the degree in despite what the job ad may say. Sure, a camp would rather hire someone with an education or recreation degree, but any degree will get you an interview as long as the rest of your experience meets the requirements. And once you’re in the interview, you can sell yourself as the best candidate. Those doing the hiring just want to know that you have completed that four-year education.
Also, realize that there are many different types of camps – resident camps, day camps, educational camps, travel camps, international camps, sports camps, scout camps, music camps, theater camps, martial arts camps, tripping camps (backpacking and such), little camps, big camps, camps for special needs campers, camps for at risk youth, camps for wealthy families, camps for kids with health issues, camps for kids of parents in the military, Christian camps, Jewish camps, and many, many more. And though a career in camping may not pay as much as a career in other fields, it is an incredibly rewarding and noble profession. You can make a real difference in people’s lives. Plus, while most people are wearing a uniform or suit and tie to work, you get to wear a t-shirt and shorts. That’s always a bonus.
To contact Curt please use the info below.