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Every day's an adventure for camp director

Posted by Cindy Atoji Keene  April 5, 2011 12:53 PM

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Bill Greene/Globe Staff Photo

Nat Saltonstall is the summer program director at the Beaver Day School in Chestnut Hill.

Thinking back to the record heat of last summer, a back-up shirt and a gallon of water are critical to keep hydrated and presentable, said camp director Nat Saltonstall of Beaver Summer Programs. “It's inevitable that I drop 10 pounds by session two,” said Saltonstall, who said that there is no such thing as “down time” during the busy camp season. Saltonstall might be getting soaked in a dunk tank one minute, then, the next, quickly drying off to meet with parents to discuss allergy issues.

With 1,300 kids rolling through the Beaver Country Day School camp in eight weeks, Saltonstall has seen it all, from the eight-year-old boy who kept sneaking away from classes to the hapless child stuck on the high course rope, petrified to climb down. In between, he manages 180 staff members, dealing with inevitable gaps in schedules or absences.

“Right now I’m looking for a certified archery instructor. And there is no question that archers are not knocking on our doors every day, since it’s not a common skill,” said Saltonstall. “But we’ll find one, even if it means helping a current counselor get the necessary credentials.”

A career as a camp director wasn’t a planned pathway for Saltonstall, who taught athletics at an independent boarding school in New Hampshire, then working at camps during the summer. “I loved being in the field of education and serving the needs of kids, but I began to realize that I enjoyed experiential more than formal education,” said Saltonstall. He left the school system and became a full-time camp director, which he equates to being the owner of a small business.

“The inside joke among camp directors is that we can’t believe when people ask us, ‘What do you do the rest of the year, from September to June? It takes more to build a successful camp than someone in the industry can image,” said Saltonstall, whose tasks include preparing for accreditation, working on risk management plans, writing newsletters, and arranging transportation routes for campers.

Q: You’ve been doing this for 18 years. How have kids changed throughout the years?

nat2-600.jpgA: Kids are coming to camp at younger and younger ages. I didn’t start camp until I was six, but now, our early childhood program for ages 3-5 is already full. Parents also have higher expectations for camp experience; they want very diverse opportunities, whether it’s technology or woodworking. There are increasing pressures on parents to raise successful children, and they have higher expectations for the camp experience.

Q: Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown says he was sexually abused by a camp counselor. How did you as a camp director feel when you heard that news?

A: Any incident of abuse is inexcusable and traumatic. I admire Scott Brown for his ability to work through and overcome that experience as a child. We're committed to the physical and emotional safety of our campers. We comply with American Camp Association standards that require staff screening, reference checks, and comprehensive background checks.

Q: Did you go to camp yourself growing up?

A: I was a happy camper as a kid. My strongest memory is doing a back flip on a trampoline and waking up in the hospital with 10 stitches in my head. But I stuck out the rest of my month-long session – unfortunately without being able to go swimming. You don't see many trampolines in camps today because of this sort of danger.

Q: Do kids still play the perennial favorite, dodgeball, at camp today?

A: We have a version called Gaga, that requires players to hit the ball with their fist or hand, rather than catching and throwing.

Q: What’s your favorite part of the job?

A: I enjoy interacting with the campers. My most recognizable attribute is that I have an impressive collection of goofy hats, too many to count, ranging from an authentic Turkish fez to the more pedestrian cheese head. I don a new one each afternoon as I direct our camper pick-up.

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