Send Your Career to Camp

Camping, as we know it in the United States today, has more than 140 years of history. According to the American Camping Association (ACA), camp has its roots deeply planted in American soil. From the first organized American camp, The Gunnery Camp, founded in 1861, to the coast-to-coast camping opportunities that exist today, “camp has always been a place where children could prepare to be productive and healthy adults in the context of fun and games,” the ACA says.

There are currently more than 12,000 day and resident camps in the United States, attended each year by over 10 million children and adults. More than 8,000 of these camps are operated by nonprofit groups, such as youth agencies, scouting groups and religious organizations; the rest are privately owned for-profit operations. The camping industry employs more than 1.2 million people in various capacities, including counselors, program leaders, camp directors, supervisors, support services staff and nurses.

America’s camps are as diverse, and their programs as distinct, as the campers who attend them. According to the ACA, an increasing number of children, teens and adults, from all social, cultural and economic backgrounds, will have a camp experience. Furthermore, the association adds, in the past 10 years there has been an increase in the use of international staff to expose campers to different cultures.

Nurses from diverse backgrounds who like to spend time with children–working with them, teaching them and learning from them–and who also enjoy being outdoors should consider becoming a camp nurse. Nurses are typically hired for the summer to provide health care to the campers and staff and to deliver health education in a non-traditional setting. Camp nursing is also an ideal summer or temporary job for school nurses who would like to earn extra income during their summer break.

Camping promotes self-responsibility in children to seek out health care on their own, experts say. The results of a 1998 longitudinal study by Louise Rauckhorst and Jane Aroian on children’s use of summer camp health facilities indicated that accidents/injuries were the number one reason why campers sought health care, followed by visits associated with communicable disease, most commonly upper respiratory infections. According to a 2002 article in Camping Magazine (“Camp Nursing: Student Internships,” by C. Harwood and L. Van Hofwegen), most camp settings are dynamic pediatric and community health learning opportunities and most camp health centers are nurse-managed health care environments.

Diverse Camps for Diverse Kids

Linda Ebner Erceg, RN, MS, PHN, has worked as a camp professional since 1969. She specializes in camp health services with a special focus on risk reduction initiatives, and is also executive director of the Association of Camp Nurses (ACN), an international nursing organization she helped launch in 1990.

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In her article “Finding a Camp Nurse Job: Tips to Help You Experience Success” (available on the ACN Web site), Erceg writes that the most important step is to find a camp that combines both the nurse’s style of practice and his/her philosophy of health care. “Just as there are many types of clinics, hospitals, public health and school nursing positions, so too are there many different camps and camp directors,” she notes.

There are day camps, overnight camps, short-term (two or three day) camps, seasonal camps that last eight or more weeks, and even some camps that offer year-round opportunities. The programs offered are diversified and meet the needs of a broad age range–from very young children to senior citizens. Erceg points out that camps may specialize in a particular activity (e.g. horsemanship, trip camping), offer high adventure programs (such as white-water canoeing) or provide a broad, general program with waterfront activities, archery, crafts, tenting experiences and/or various sports. There are also specialty camps that serve children with special needs.

For example, Camp Boggy Creek, located in Eustis, Fla., is a permanent, year-round facility for young people between the ages of seven and 16 who have chronic and life-threatening illnesses. The campers attend at no charge; the majority of the cost of staffing and operating the camp is covered by contributions from individuals, health care partnerships, foundations and corporations. Children with illnesses such as asthma, cancer, diabetes, hemophilia, kidney disease, sickle cell anemia, spina bifida and others enjoy a safe and exciting camp experience with a well-rounded summer staff made up of people from all different backgrounds whose strong desire to work with children brings them together as a team.

While some camps for children with special medical needs are general in focus, others are targeted to campers who have a specific disease. For instance, there are asthma camps, diabetes camps, sickle-cell camps and so on. These types of camps, which can be easily located by doing an Internet search, are often affiliated with local medical centers or with organizations like the American Diabetes Association and the American Lung Association.

Campers Come in All Colors

Because camping increasingly reflects the wide-ranging racial, ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic diversity of today’s America, minority nurses have much to offer the camp community.

Harriet Braithwaite, RN, started out volunteering at Camp Boggy Creek when the facility opened in 1996. She first became involved with the camp when her youngest daughter, born with polycystic kidney and liver disease, underwent a kidney transplant in 1995. Braithwaite says her first experience at the camp was wonderful. When her daughter later died after returning from a visit to relatives overseas, the African-American nurse decided to honor her memory by doing something to help other seriously ill children understand that they too could have fun at camp in spite of their medical conditions.

Because of her experience with peritoneal dialysis, Braithwaite is always available to perform dialysis at the camp if there is no nurse available to do so. She also dispenses meds and interacts with the children during their activities. “[Camp] Boggy is a beautiful place,” she says. “Over the years I have seen only positive changes, all for the good of the kids.”

Braithwaite, who is paid by her regular employer for the time she spends volunteering at the camp, feels it is important for minority children to interact with adult camp staff who look like them. “We need more [nurses of color] to encourage the kids and do something positive for them,” she comments.

While a camp setting is obviously different than the traditional hospital nursing environment, Braithwaite believes nursing is nursing no matter how you look at it. “You don’t have to have a BSN, MS or PhD to be a camp nurse,” she asserts. “However, you do need to be a team player, be self-sufficient and be willing to work hard and smile often.”

Another important point, Braithwaite adds, is to be honest with the children, especially those who have special medical needs. These kids, she explains, already know everything about their condition and don’t need to be reminded that they are sick; they just need to blend in as inconspicuously as possible.

Nofizwe Palmer, RN, has spent the last five years at Camp Boggy Creek as a volunteer nurse. Palmer, who is African American, believes it takes a special kind of nursing professional to be a camp nurse–whether at a mainstream camp or at a special-needs facility–because there is more of an emotional context to providing nursing care. “I truly believe I get more out of going to Camp Boggy than the campers do!” she says.

What Are You Doing This Summer?

Experienced camp administrators appreciate that camp nursing involves more than just applying bandages and passing out pills. According to Harwood and Hofwegen, quality camp nursing draws upon a blend of nursing assessment and skills. It also requires knowledge, attitudes and judgment specific to the unique needs of the camp clientele. Camp nurses must have a current CPR card, be licensed in the state in which the camp is located and follow that state’s Nurse Practice Act. At some camps, malpractice insurance is required, as well as a first aid certificate.

Camp nursing is demanding, challenging and complex. As in all areas of nursing practice, it is important that the nurse’s skills and competencies match the needs of the campers and that the camp supports safe nursing practice. Camp nurses should have good communication skills, as they frequently interact with administrators, campers and parents. They must also do a lot of teaching, both to staff and campers. Along with critical thinking skills and problem-solving capabilities, nurses should take along their stethoscopes, a current drug reference book and pediatric textbooks.

Nurses are sometimes able to take their own family to camp, but should research the camp prior to committing, so as to select the one that most closely meets family needs. When considering a position at a particular camp, it is also important to inquire about living accommodations, co-workers, salary, nurses’ responsibilities, work schedule, and addition medical support staff. There also can be more than one nurse at a camp.

The ACN’s Erceg believes the most successful camp nurses have a genuine interest in being at camp, enjoy the type of people for whom they provide care and like being part of a team.

“Camps need nurses,” she says. “Over five million children attended camp last summer and many went without a nurse. Camp nursing practice can be an empowering and wonderful experience. It is a practice setting where comfort with autonomy is necessary, where the working day may not be defined by eight hours and where the professional nurse is valued.”

A Field Guide to Camp Nursing Jobs

With more than 12,000 camps currently operating in the U.S., how can you make sure you’re choosing a camp nursing opportunity that’s right for you? Linda Ebner Erceg, RN, MS, PHN, executive director of the Association of Camp Nurses (ACN), offers this expert advice.

Factors to consider when evaluating a camp nurse position:
• Determine if the camp is American Camping Association (ACA) accredited–an excellent indicator of the camp’s commitment to quality programming.
• Ask for a copy of the camp’s health plan. This describes the needs of the camp population and defines the camp’s philosophy of health care.
• Ask for a copy of the camp nurse job description.

Questions to ask the camp director before accepting the position:
• What is a typical day in the life of a camp nurse like?
• What is the approximate number of people seen daily at the health center, and for what reasons?
• What kind of care does administration want the nurse to provide?
• Who supervises the nurses, and whom does the camp nurse supervise?
• What is the relationship of the nurse to other staff members?
• What is the amount of time spent on paperwork and what does it entail?
• What is the nurse’s role in communicable disease control and risk management?
• What is the salary and what are the benefits, such as housing and time off?
• Is there any additional health care support, such as a collaborating physician, standing orders, clinic/hospital, pharmacy, crisis response team, dentist, EMS?

Typical camp nurse responsibilities:
• Dispense meds
• First aid for minor injuries
• Ensure health and safety of campers and staff
• Daily sick call
• Weekly health checks
• Communicate specific camper health needs (allergies, special diets, etc.) to staff
• Medical record keeping
• Liaison with local doctors, hospitals and pharmacies
• Make sure transitioning doctors are informed of health center procedures and current medical issues
• Communicate with parents
• Accompany sick/injured campers or staff to the hospital or to medical appointments
• Be a “summer mom/dad” to campers
• Participate in camp activities and events

Equipment the camp should have:
• Walkie-talkies, phones, pagers
• Intubation supplies
• Standard emergency equipment and medications
• Oxygen tanks