A veteran camp director opens up about her challenges with a generation that’s constantly connected – and her brave initiative to outsmart screens.
By Mrs. Dinie Gurary – Director of Camp Pardes Chana
What’s the longest you’ve gone without your phone? A few hours? A day? This past summer, counselors at Camp Pardas Chanah limited their screen access for a full month.
It happened slowly, but over the years I started to notice a change at camp. The shift in phone use was slowly seeping into the camp environment. As director, I always relied on my counselors for their attentiveness, caring, and 24/7 devotion to their campers. With a phone constantly at their sides this was becoming a challenge.
While I love and value my counselors with all my heart and soul, in this regard, they are no different than the average teenager (or adult?) who feels most comfortable with a phone in their palm at all times.
“Please limit phone use to free time,” I asked my counselors. But it wasn’t working. Either they needed it to snap a quick picture, play some music, get directions, message the head counselors—or they were simply dependent. After years of directing Camp Pardes Chanah, I felt like I needed to challenge the status quo.
So I put myself in my counselors’ shoes. Was there really something wrong with a counselor having their phone on them all the time? And, more importantly, if it was wrong, how could I change things without making my staff miserable?
It was mid-winter when Chanie called from Crown Heights. She was a volunteer at Mothers Unite to Stall Technology (MUST), and she had a vision.
“We want to create a phone-free summer camp environment,” she said. “Would you be willing to pilot it?”
Eureka! Exactly what I was dreaming of except now I had the support and resources of a reputable, knowledgeable organization.
So we set out to make phones unnecessary. We bought two-way radios for each staff member. We got speakers for each bunkhouse and loaded MP3 players with hundreds of Jewish songs. Each bunk got their own digital camera (remember those?).
MUST Crown Heights offered to help subsidize the investment. The costs were high, but not as high as the cost of a kid’s summer camp experience. It felt right.
Parents spend a lot of money on overnight camp, and they send their children with high hopes. They pray that the staff will be attentive, caring, and in-tune with their children’s needs and wants. Cutting out phones was our way to help ensure that.
At our pre-camp staff training, I apprehensively introduced the idea and the staff responded with general enthusiasm. Phones were stored away in the staff lounge for after lights out, and the staff set out to learn how to stay in touch throughout the day without a Whatsapp group.
It was far from perfect. The radios made communication complicated; some malfunctioned mid-summer. The mp3 players didn’t have enough songs; the speakers weren’t loud enough. We hadn’t factored in the need for watches, alarm clocks, or flashlights.
At the end of the summer we asked counselors for feedback.
“I was able to just be in the moment. I loved it.”
“I didn’t think I was capable, but surprisingly, I really enjoyed not having my phone.”
“I can’t compare the care and focus I was able to have without that added distraction.”
I noticed a huge difference day in and day out. The counselors’ devotion this summer was unparalleled. They were living role models, showing restraint and conviction and the message to the campers was loud and clear: You matter and so I am fully present and focused when I am with you.
So yes, this summer there might be less pictures to look back on, but there will be lots more meaningful memories.
We are proud to have pioneered MUST @ Camp and look forward to improving the program further. I am forever grateful to my counselors for journeying along with us as we launched MUST @ Camp PC, beta version. I encourage all camps to join in this incredible initiative. You will not be disappointed.
Save the date: Mothers Unite to Stall Technology is hosting a worldwide Hakhel Zoom event on Monday, Dec. 5th at 8:30 PM EST.