For part two of my path series, I asked my good friend Melanie Dash to talk about her journey to becoming a camp professional.
Mel just so happens to be one of my favourite people on the planet!
We met at a camp fair a few years ago and I decided right away that she was an adorable human and we should become friends immediately (that’s how everyone becomes friends as an adult, right?)
Over the past few years Mel has continually inspired and astounded me with her creativity, organization, passion for camping and most of all, her drive for success.
Hopefully her story will help inspire and motivate some of you too!
Tell us about yourself.
I wouldn’t be completing this questionnaire if I didn’t love camp. Currently that is my hobby, my likes and my entire world. But when I have some non-camp related time I love to cook, kayak, socialize, be with family, travel…. I love ice cream and would have no problem eating it everyday if I were stuck on a deserted island.
I love dogs but don’t have one. But when I do, he will be named Gus and he’ll be awesome.
I love watching football, playing board games, and going on random adventures with friends. I love road trips, popcorn and dancing while cleaning.
My pet peeves are when people wear socks with sandals, unnecessarily shortened words like “totes”, or “presh” or “adorbs”, drivers who don’t use their turn signal, and people who give their kids weird names like Audi, Chia, Harbor and Heavenleigh.
Seriously, this trend needs to stop.
How many years have you been involved in camping?
I’ve been in the camping field for 15 years. Whoa.
What positions have you held?
In tenth grade I attended a weeklong leadership camp hosted by Tyler Hayden, it was life changing. That was the only time I’ve been a camper.
I’ve been a counselor, a unit leader, an arts and crafts director, a program coordinator, a program supervisor, a day camp program director, an office manager (I wanted to learn the business side of camp), a camp consultant and now currently a program director.
How did you become involved in camping?
A few of my friends and I attended an information session about a volunteer opportunity at my university.
The program director of that program also did a plug for Pine Tree that night as they were currently hiring.
We thought it sounded like a cool opportunity so we all signed up that night. I stayed with Pine Tree for 12 years after that. I was hooked.
What was your “ah-ha” moment when you knew you wanted to be a camp professional?
I loved camp from the get-go and knew I wanted to be involved through my undergrad years but never saw it as a career path.
That was until I was asked to create and lead the pilot program for the new day camp we were introducing. I loved every part of designing the programming, corresponding with the families, creating materials and trainings for my own small group of staff, facilitating a full day of activities for our campers.
It was a whirlwind; a rush and I wanted more.
I loved seeing all of the hard work you put into designing a project, no matter the scale, come to fruition, being a success and knowing you’ve just created a positive experience for others.
I remember after the last day of our first week of day camp, clad still in my DIY pirate costume, sitting at the lake, reflecting about the week, thinking, “I could get used to this”.
What did you study in school? How has it helped you in your camp career?
When I started working at camp I was working towards an Arts degree. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do “when I grew up” so I took a general degree.
What I should have done was ask people for advice and maybe I would have been guided in the right direction sooner but… that didn’t happen.
So I have a degree in Sociology. I really don’t use this much as a camp professional but I do use the best skill any degree can offer everyday.
The skill of critical thinking.
That was my biggest take away from my first undergraduate experience and it’s helped me tenfold ever since.
Years later I returned to university to complete my degree in Recreation Management and Community Development.
I already had many years of camp experience behind me at this point but I wanted my educational background and my work experience to be in sync.
This was one of the best decisions I made.
I was very reluctant to go back to school as a mature student but I’m so thankful I did.
I learned so much about creating and facilitating programs, engaging in your community, how to leverage your assets, how to write grants/proposals, strategic planning…. I use these things constantly as a camp director.
I do program development regularly, work with a lot of different folks in the communities we serve, write grants and proposals for funding, donations and supplies.
We are currently doing strategic planning which I’m taking lead on and using the exact training I received from my degree to facilitate the plan.
Before going back to school I didn’t think I would learn much more than I had learned in the real world while working at camp. I was very wrong.
I was able to use my work experience to better my education, which was perfect because I was able to relate to the material very well. But in the end the education I received went above and beyond my expectations and now my work benefits greatly from what I learned.
What was your “path” to your current position?
For most of my camp history I moved up through the ranks at Pine Tree Camp, my first camp.
It was near the end of working with this camp that I went back to school for my Rec degree.
I outgrew this camp, as there weren’t any opportunities for me to advance where I wanted at the time.
It was due time for change too.
I wanted a new challenge, a new learning experience. So I started my camp consulting business, Campfire Consulting. I was very fortunate as I started with a fulltime client so I didn’t have to supplement work/income elsewhere.
I also became involved with my provincial camping association and became a member of the board. This connection was hugely beneficial as it kept me connected to the camping industry as I was working independently from home as a consultant.
This past year that fulltime client I started with hired me as their fulltime employee and I made the move from Nova Scotia to Maine to be the Program Director for Camp No Limits.
This is my new chapter and it’s an exciting one full of opportunities.
If there was one thing you could have done differently early in your career, what would it be?
I would have gone to school for a degree in my field sooner.
I knew when I was directing day camp that I wanted this to be my career path but I was reluctant to go back to school. I already had so much student loan debt and the thought of another degree and going back to school as an adult was daunting.
It took several years for me to decide to go for it. But I think it was meant to happen this way. I love the organization I work for right now and I’m not sure I would be where I am today if things hadn’t played out the way they had. So I’m not sure if that’s a good response!
I would also have sought change sooner than I did.
I loved working at Pine Tree but the last couple of years I worked there I didn’t learn anything new and or wasn’t challenged in new ways.
I should have seized the passion I felt to keep growing and moving forward instead of staying in a position that didn’t have room to grow in.
What is your advice to a “shiny new” camp director?
Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb, try new things, especially if it’s not “the way we’ve always done it”.
At camp we get into comfort zones, our whole lives are structured and scheduled in our camp bubbles.
It’s easy to get caught up with going through the daily motions.
But change is exciting!
When I started with Camp No Limits I really shook things up. They didn’t know what hit them frankly! But I took a chance and it paid off. The organization is growing by leaps and bounds and it’s a result of some of the change I initiated.
That being said, camp is also about traditions and history.
Take stock of what camp traditions are at your camp and see if they still hold positive value.
If so, keep them, honor them, show them off.
If they don’t add anything positive to your mission and those you serve, change it.
You’ll get flack from those who “have done it this way for years”, but this kind of change is needed for growth. Don’t be afraid to shake a few branches…. but don’t come in like a steamroller either!
Find your balance.
What advice would you offer future camp directors?
Make sure you’re completely passionate about camp and what it offers others.
Your leadership will greatly impact the lives of your campers, your staff and the community you engage.
Don’t pursue this career if it’s just a placeholder for what you really want to do.
It’s too important of a job for that.
If you have the passion, give it your all… don’t hold back.
To contact Mel, use the info below.