It’s been two weeks since Family Retreats, the summer camp program we crafted in response to COVOD-19 restrictions, ended, and to our joy and relief, no one has reported any illness! Coupled with the fact that there were also no coronavirus cases during our six sessions of Family Retreats, we’re reading this summer’s effort as a huge success!
Just to be clear, Family Retreats was already a success in terms of offering a regulatorily compliant and physically-distanced setting while also being a deeply nourishing back-to-nature family-based camping experience for our campers. We thoughtfully crafted what we could given the times and various state dictates, yet we did it in a way that left so much room for relaxation, enjoyment, and personal and family renewal.
Another way that it was a success was in pivoting our programing to retain business flexibility. We were able to draw in some revenue, employ folks, and stay relevant, all qualities of the resilience and grit that we see as a core value in our mission. We were able to practice it ourselves this summer.
But we have to admit that just knowing that coronavirus was still a risk, and that we would be judged on how well we structured things, leaves us proud that being entirely COVID-free during and after the program is icing on the cake for us.
And I want to share with you those areas where we feel most proud of our successes.
Though operating as an overnight kids’ camp was not in the cards, we were able to use our facilities to operate as what was essentially a campground-like setting using an official West Virginia Campground designation and permit this summer. To do so, we followed all of West Virginia’s COVID-19 specific protocols, restrictions, and mandates for campgrounds.
At the top of these protocols was setting the expectation for our guests that families/family units would stay physically distanced from other families/family units. In the most intimate setting — Tent Row — we managed this by spacing tents apart from others at a much greater distance than we typically have during our girls’ summer camp.
Masks had to be worn indoors (luckily we don’t have many indoor spaces at camp!), and staff members wore masks if they had to get closer than six feet to any guests.
Around camp we set up extra sanitizing stations, bathrooms were cleaned three times a day in accordance with West Virginia’s COVID-19 guidelines, and on top of the we chose to assigned families their own bathroom stalls, shower stalls, and sinks so there wasn’t any sharing between different families. Similarly, when it came to equipment for example, we assigned guests their own life jacket for the week, and treated other equipment in similar manners — either assigning them, or extra sanitizing.
Activities were simplified and pared down from our usual wide offerings at Family Camp. For example, Arts & Crafts was not open, nor was our normal Rifle Range. We didn’t host many of our much anticipated and very social Evening Activities such as a band coming to play in the Play Hall. Nor could we do field games outside because families would have had to mingle in a physically close way. Instead, Evening Activities were simple campfires or outdoor movies where families could enjoy the peaceful evening, and a sense of nighttime togetherness while physically distanced from other families.
Dining was driven by West Virginia’s food service guidelines during COVID which required spacing the families out, which we chose to do by putting an empty table between each table being used. Families were assigned a table for their own use their whole stay and no other families used their table. Families bussed their own tables, and for this one summer we used paper products instead of reusables. While it isn’t our preferred method relative to being environmentally sustainable, the interest of safety made this summer’s exception a reasonable approach.
In the Dining Hall masks were worn while in line and anywhere inside the Dining Hall except when seated at their tables. We operated cafeteria style with masked and gloved staff serving out the food. All staff were COVID-19 tested before coming to camp and had to test negative. And on an ongoing basis daily temperature checks were performed on staff. So a lot of safety measures were in place and were strictly followed — we were really determined to make it through COVID-free if possible and taking all the safety measures very seriously was at the top of our list!
A Rocking Staff — or The Staff Was Our Rock!
While the pared down nature of Family Retreats and the distancing inherent to it meant that we didn’t need a lot of staff this summer, we still needed a few, and they rocked!
The small but mighty group we had helped with activity areas, food service, camp cleaning and sanitization, and also small projects on the side when not otherwise busy. For example, one counselor, Rei, painted brand new signs for many of our buildings and for areas around camp that you’ll get to see in person next summer!
We needed a counselor or two on the Archery range, a couple of lifeguards, a staff person assisting with paddles and canoes, a staff member assigned to spray down playground equipment, and a staff member to lead guided hikes. We had approximately 5-6 counselors each week, in addition to our Admin Team, and together we all jumped right in and helped in every and all areas. The staff was so positive and willing to help in all areas, making our summer process very smooth!
I know I speak for all the directors in saying we are so thankful for the wonderful staff who came to work this summer — we couldn’t have done it without you!
And a special shout out goes to my right hand woman Stephanie Astley, our Head of Family Camp. While all our staff were amazing assets, we definitely couldn’t have pulled this off in any way without Stephanie!
From the start of this whole COVID ordeal, the Admin Team had mused about the idea of only holding Family Camp. We kept holding out hope that we could hold all of our programs but it eventually became clear that it was going to be impossible. But couldn’t we at least do Family Camp? Well, sort of.
Since Family Camp is such a popular program with a dynamic and sort of sub-Ghany culture all its own, we knew we had to set expectations different this year and gain buy-in from those who typically come to Family Camp but who accepted that this summer would be different. We had to remind our camp community that this was NOT traditional Family Camp as they knew it.
Also keep in mind that Stephanie usually plans for only one week of family programming, and only is on site for that one week of programming. She was such a trooper about the alternative Family Retreats approach, with three weeks of programming and being on site, and she believed in us and believed that we could pull this off. She put so much time, energy, and effort into Family Retreats, taking it from idea to reality with ease and grace.
This really was a team effort and again, ALL of our staff, from counselors to the Admins, all pulled their weight, for sure! But it would have been very difficult without Stephanie and her work ethic, amazing customer-oriented personality, and her love for Alleghany. Thank you Stephanie!
A Place of Comfort in a Time of Stress
Interestingly, many of our Family Retreats families were already camp families in the sense that the daughter attends Alleghany as a camper and wanted to come to camp this summer even if just for a short time. Her parents agreed to give Family Retreats a try. They had never really experienced camp the same way their daughters have, but now are converts to the ‘Ghany way!
Of course, alumnae moms have been to ‘Ghany, but this was very new for dads and siblings and extended family members and any non-alum moms.
It was so heartwarming to receive so many wonderful rave reviews about their stays, saying things like “I loved experiencing Alleghany the way my daughter does, really living here, sleeping in the tent, spending time in this place.”
Others said how refreshing it was to be in nature, away from the stress of the real world, in the rhythms of nature.
One parent told me that her daughter tells her a few things about her camp experiences but doesn’t go into a lot of detail, and by being at Family Retreats themselves the parents were able to understand what it all meant, and to get a greater picture and bigger sense of the experience and what makes Camp Alleghany so special to their child.
A couple of the daughters told me how strange it was that when they moved into their tent on their arrival day that their parents stayed, instead of leaving. They said “we sat around kind of expecting them to go, like – it’s time to leave now! and then we realized they’re staying!” Ha!
Other Family Retreaters were our regular Family Campers who have come to Family Camp for years. They were thrilled to have the chance to get away to Alleghany again, even if it looked and felt a little different this summer. We received a lot of “thank you so much for doing this!” comments from them. And we thank them for taking a chance on this modified program this summer!
And, somewhat surprisingly, we also had some total newbies who’ve never had a child at ‘Ghany, and never been to camp or Family Camp before. These folks were searching for a safe and outdoor family vacation and found it in our Family Retreats! So I think and hope we won them over to the ‘Ghany community and we welcome them with open (if not temporarily physically distanced) arms!
My Joy is Camp
I’m so thrilled with the success of this summer. And I’m equally moved by the experience of simply trying to “Keep calm and carry on.”
It was very, very important for me to be at camp this summer, to “keep the lantern lights on,” if you will, and to provide something, in any form, for families to come and do at camp. I’m deeply grateful for all the staff that believed in us and made this happen, as well as all of our wonderful customers who believed in us and took a chance to come enjoy a small part of their summer on the banks of the Greenbrier River.
Opening up for this alternative camp offering was truly worth every stressful moment of uncertainty — will it work? can we stay safe? will people enjoy it? — and it was worth all the hard work (including the work to distance from families we love!), all the alternative preparations, and all the restriction-based adaptations.
On a personal level I had an epiphany about my lifelong and truly deep connection to camp, especially how my mind and body physically and emotionally felt so much better after being at ‘Ghany. It’s a subject that’s very dear to my heart so I hope you’ll stay tuned to the blog as I’ll be writing about this very soon. I hope it will inspire you to celebrate your deep connection to natural places and your own personal places of renewal (with ‘Ghany among them!)
Please read some Family Retreats testimonials below and watch our social media for a release of a larger Family Retreats photo gallery!
— Elizabeth Shreckhise, Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls
You all did an amazing job- the bathroom, shower, and dining hall tables for family units were exactly what we needed to safely ease back into being in a location where didn’t fully control our environment/safety.
Very well done. I’m so grateful that family retreats was able to happen. I felt safe and appreciated all of the precautions. Loved the sanitizing stations around camp. Also liked the limited attendance at activities in order to social distance. Thank you for making family retreats happen!! After 5 months home alone, it was the BEST experience! Thank you!!
Thank you so much for providing us this experience. It was truly special and a vacation our family will never forget. Camp Alleghany is a magical place. We knew that already, but getting to experience for ourselves really confirmed it.
The staff really went out of their way to learn the children’s names, speak to them, and make them feel welcome.
The use of canoes/life jackets was a breeze. The assigning of archery slots was heaven. Distribution of food for meals was easy. It was great!
My favorite moment– campfire on last night. Loved the laid-back atmosphere. Kids running around playing. No need for an organized activity. Parents were relaxed and able to sit and interact. Fire for s’mores–perfect!!
Loved being out in nature and experiencing Izzy’s happy place through her eyes, kind of!
COVID protocols were very good and made the environment feel safe which allowed us to relax and enjoy our time. Staff was very responsive to all requests. There were plenty of activities and the environment was, as always, restorative.