As I’ve written about in the past, American camps that are part of the American Camp Association (ACA), may choose to go beyond broad industry standards and contemporary expectations by consumers and actually become accredited by the ACA.
Being accredited means you have ACA’s stamp of approval through following all of the ACA’s standards. In other words, the camp is doing everything in its power to be as safe and prudent as possible when it comes to camper and staff safety, among other things.
To evaluate this regularly, ACA “Visitors” (the industry name for those supervising compliance) make an on site visit to camp every five years. I wrote a lot about a previous visit in 2015. (We would’ve had our visit in 2020 but camp wasn’t running full programs in 2020 due to COVID.)
What It Takes To Be A Leading Camp
Accreditation is not only about physical safety. It’s also about emotional safety. For example:
- Do we have a bullying policy in place?
- Do we have goals for our camp, campers, and staff?
- Are we surveying our campers, staff, and families to continually be improving?
These kinds of approaches, and related metrics, along with thorough documentation of the same, go into the ACA accreditation process.
There are hundreds of ACA Accreditation Standards that are broken into seven categories: Administration, Core/Foundational, Facilities, Health & Wellness, Program Aquatics, Program Design, and Staff Training & Qualifications.
The ACA thoroughly guides camps on these areas through their own outreach, professional development opportunities, and events like conferences and even online trainings.
All camps who take the standards seriously use them as drivers in how we set up our programs, maintain our facilities, communicate our offerings, engage with our staff and camp families, and document our business across all the areas.
Knowing this, we have to be ready at any time for the ACA Visitors to come to camp and see those standards at work both out in the field, and in terms of our supporting paperwork. When camps are “visited, ” they have to pass 80% in each category. The categories are weighted, but camps don’t know how they are weighted for us, so we don’t necessarily know at the time of the visit if we’ve passed.
Accredited camps are visited once every five years for an on-site visit and thorough review of all the paperwork and policies. In the years in between, to maintain our accreditation status, we fill out a comprehensive online questionnaire that’s evaluated by another camp professional.
Speaking of camp professionals, the Visitors are camp directors just like me and Camp Alleghany’s President Emeritus (and my dear old dad) Sam Dawson! In fact, Sam and I are both trained ACA Visitors,. We take our turn at evaluations and typically visit one-two area camps per summer for their accreditation visits
This year Sam and I both chose not to visit any camps, for two reasons:
First, it’s challenging enough to prepare your own camp for the five-year visit, much less review another camp’s paperwork and documents during the same season all while still running daily operations! We decided that on accreditation years, We won’t Visit other camps as ACA Visitors.
Secondly, we put in place stringent COVID protocols at Camp Alleghany for Girls with the goal of having a 100% COVID-free summer at ‘Ghany. (We succeeded by the way, woo hoo!)
Naturally we chose as part of this plan to minimize trips out of camp to other locations to the bare minimum required to function as a camp ourselves, or to meet any family needs. We decided that it would best serve ‘Ghany’s COVID mission to stay put this year on ACA Visits by me and Sam. The ACA did offer the opportunity for Visitors to perform Virtual Visits this year, but again, we’re not doing other Visits during our own 5-year review Visits anyway.
The ACA VIsit to Ghany 2021
We also had the option of receiving a Virtual ACA Visit versus the Visitors coming on-site. If we chose virtual, we’d have to be visited again in three years as opposed to five. Earlier this year as the vaccine rolled out and things started looking up, we chose the in-person visit, knowing that these on-site Visitors were vaccinated, and would be subjected to our rapid testing protocol for all on-site visitors to Ghany this summer, and that camp is largely outside, going forward seemed wise and prudent.
Some other camps also just opted out of a visit altogether, saying it was too challenging to pull off. I don’t blame them! I’m not 100% sure what happens to your accreditation status if you ask for an extension, but for us it was nice to just meet the five-year goal and know we were well in place until 2026.
Our Visitors were two colleagues of mine in the industry. Neither had ever been to Alleghany before, so I was thrilled to show them my camp!
We chose our Visit date for the middle of Second Term. I learned the hard way several years ago that Second Term is definitely the better term to have the visit, because during First Term we’re still prepping and planning for all the details of Second Term. By Second Term, the office has slowed down a bit as we’re not prepping and planning for another full camper session (we’re still planning for Family Camp, but that’s a different ball of wax!)
I started preparing the paperwork for our ACA Visit all the way back in January and February 2020 (because that’s when our original Visit was supposed to be), so I had made decent headway on reviewing standards, looking at any new or updated standards, and evaluating any changes made to facilities or programming at ‘Ghany, so I would be ready for the Visit.
I revisited the paperwork in the winter of 2021, and again we made great progress. But it’s still so much detail, so many areas of compliance, and you know what that means…so much paperwork!
After I got settled into the routine with COVID testing at camp this summer, including all those LabCorp spreadsheets, and successfully opened up Second Term, etc, I sat down with my ACA binders yet again, and basically holed up in my Office for a week perfecting everything and making sure every “i” was dotted and every “T” was crossed. You’d be reading all day if I detailed everything, but it’s things like:
- Evacuation, intruder, and hazard plans
- Insurance documentation
- How easily paperwork is accessed (your camp’s office layout and organization)
- Staff training, and documentation
- Food safety compliance
- Sanitation and cleanliness (even in a non-COVID year)
- Sickness protocols
- Walkways and clearance
- Communication channels to the outside world
And seriously I could go on and on and on! Which is good, because this is what sets the best camps apart from the rest and I’m proud to always meet and exceed these standards.
During the final countdown to the Visit I did feel badly one night because I was at an evening activity and a camper said, “Oh there’s Elizabeth! We never see you!”
Cue the dagger in my heart!
I make a huge effort to not spend all my days in the Camp Office, but every five years that week before an ACA Visit is an exception. You better believe when that Visit was over the best de-stressing in the world was getting to dive back into daily life at camp with everything I had – I even went to Free Swim twice!!
A Little Help From My Friends
It wasn’t just me working on the standards.
Program Director Casey Tucker pulled a huge weight in the programming standards areas. My brother, Facilities Director Cooper Dawson, did his fair share with ensuring compliance across all our Facilities areas, which includes the grounds, kitchen, bathrooms, laundry, the Barge, and more.
Office Manager Louise Dawson was my right-hand woman on paperwork and Office organization issues.
And my dad Sam chipped in to make it a true team effort!
On the day of the Visit, the Visitors need a full tour of camp, as they have to visually see certain parts of camp in order to be able to score us on them.
For example, it’s a must that they see our Waterfront area, our lifeguards lifeguarding, and all the safety mechanisms in place concerning water activities. In our bathrooms, they want to review the cleanliness of handwashing sinks, and in the Infirmary see that medications are securely locked away. On Tent Row they’re looking to see that beds are spaced out appropriately in our platform tents (among other things).
We started our Visit day with othe camp tour and then we sat on the open air Office Porch for our paperwork review, going through each Accreditation Category binder one by one, standard by standard. Where there were any questions, or elaborations, I answered each one.
As I answered and showed our documentation, the lead Visitor marked on an official paper a checkmark or an X for each one.
If an X is given, a note to explain why is always written in. The camp director then also has the opportunity to write a note to explain why the standard wasn’t met — for example, temporary measures may have precluded it, other measures are being put in place, etc.
The whole process went faster than I expected. We finished the tour and all of our paperwork before lunch, so one of the Visitors actually headed back to her camp without staying for lunch. I know it’s hard to be gone from your camp for a full day, so I understood her desire to get back!
The other camp director stayed for lunch — one of our traditional Lunch Under the Apple Tree (LUTAT) days, which was lovely.
It was great to see both of these friends and colleagues,. I was happy to show them my camp and swap gruelling COVID prep and maintenance war stories of the summer camp world.
We’re Accredited For Our Next 5-Year Period!
After the Visit, the paperwork is put in an official envelope and mailed off to ACA National HQ to be reviewed. The Visitors themselves don’t give a passing/not passing score. They simply tour, review, make the check marks or exes, and then it’s out of their hands.
Usually at the end of the Visit you have a good idea of how you did, which I did ☺ Still it’s nice, like this week, when we receive our official email saying we passed! I knew that we had, but it’s nice to get the official email! The subject line was: Congratulations! You are Accredited!
The email goes on to say:
On October 11, the ACA Virginias Local Council of Leaders met to determine the accreditation status of each camp in the area. Based on your scores calculated by ACA, Inc., the Local Council of Leaders has voted to classify Camp Alleghany as ACA accredited.
When it comes to our actual score, the official email states:
As proud as you may be, we ask that you comply with our requirement that your ACA accreditation scores be kept confidential. Your scores are available only to you, ACA, Inc., and the Local Standards Committee. They are not to be shared with the public, parents, or the media to avoid the danger of misinterpretation. We hope you understand our firm position on this matter and ask that you refrain from referencing your accreditation score in your promotional materials.
You’d think we could rest on that…but high-striving camp organizations always circle back to our responsibilities for the next few years until our next Visit. The email ends with:
After your visit, your camp has an ongoing responsibility to maintain accreditation. Your camp must continue to pay its camp fees, and a representative of your camp must sign the Statement of Compliance for each accreditation year (November through October) by February 1. Every accredited camp must also complete an Annual Accreditation Report to provide continued compliance with the standards in non-visit years. You will receive additional information about the Statement of Compliance and the Annual Accreditation Report via e-mail by December 1.
And so it goes. I often say that my so-called “off-season” is every bit as busy as the on-site summer sessions. Good thing we LOVE our camp, the camp industry, and all the promise and potential in the American summer camp culture.
Can’t wait to see YOU at our newly re-accredited camp next summer!
— Elizabeth Shreckhise, Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls
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