Get ready to be swept away as we explore how camps have shaped the past and are shaping the future in an interview with dynamic camp expertise duo: Kathy Trotter and Jody Oates.
We want to note that in this interview Kathy references “Christian camps.” This is simply because the work that Kathy did while she was with Kaleidoscope was primarily for this community. Now, Kaleidoscope serves much broader faith communities as well as secular camps.
Casey Fuerst (Owner of Tic Tac Toe Marketing): Kathy, I have this memory of meeting you. It was probably 20 years ago in Nebraska. Roger Sasse was there, and I just remember being in awe. I was this young, new to camp kind of person, and here you were, this woman at the time, unheard of, and more of an expert than the executives were, and I was like, “I want to be her – she is amazing!” So, I’m glad I get to see you again.
Kathy Trotter (Founder of Kaleidoscope, Inc.): You too. We still have the farm in Nebraska, so I’m back there periodically. Every time I go by the interstate, I’m like, “oh, I wonder what’s going on over there.”
Casey: Gosh, you should drive in there. You wouldn’t recognize it. And interestingly, the master plan that you guided the camp in creating came true and it’s just an amazing camp. It’s really beautiful.
Kathy: It was right on in terms of the conceptual design. So yeah, it was pretty exciting to see it. So good to see you.
Casey: It’s good to see you too. Jody, how are you?
Jody Oates (President of Kaleidoscope, Inc.): Good! Thanks.
Casey: Great! So, let’s just start with the history of Kaleidoscope – starting back to when you started it Kathy.
Kathy: The history began before I actually launched as a company. Because being a consultant is a different role than being a director. And coming from that perspective, I had to ask that question and ask myself, “why would I think I could do that?” And in the course of attending a number of the conferences and listening to other people and their issues, one of the perspectives I gained is that it’s important to continue to move forward and to be looking at what’s coming at you and to be concentrating on what’s out there. An awful lot of the institutional world, not just camps, looks at what was and wonder “how do we keep that going?” And that isn’t the way the world works. And so Jodi and I have talked together about that perspective. And you know that’s been the tagline from the beginning for Kaleidoscope, a new perspective, which is based on a belief that comes somewhat from my background. I always considered myself more of an educator than a consultant because people ultimately have to discover their own way to do things – the principles and concepts, particularly in this field. Early on, there weren’t a lot of them articulated. A big part of it was to articulate the concepts and the principles that really are true in this field, regardless of where you’re trying to implement them. So it was first a learning process for myself as I directed camps, and then secondly, got an opportunity to be a part of an architectural firm that had designed the Alton L Collins Retreat Center where I moved to Oregon after South Dakota to put that into operation. As architects, they were clear that oftentimes, even though the client said they wanted a building, they were in no way ready to raise the funds and then build that building and the architects wanted some help with the program and operational planning so that when they designed to build it, they actually had some reality for how things work in camps and retreats. When I moved away from Oregon, it was both too far to maintain that relationship. And with Jody, this is what has continued, I had a different vision and that is a holistic approach that says our purpose is to carry out our mission with programs – that is why camp properties exist. However, the uniqueness of that resonant space requires that camp properties be totally aligned with that mission and program. It’s carrying out the mission. So the integration between those two things can’t be just separated into consultants that do operation and architects that do building.
Casey: And it’s not flippant, either. It’s not something you can just say, “oh, well, here’s how it connects.” It’s a lifelong process of an organization to discern and implement that.
Kathy: So that was the vision of Kaleidoscope that started in 1986. I originally filed it and eventually went full time from 1986-2010. When I began working with Jody, I recognized that Jody and I actually shared that perspective and knew the difference between “doing” and “consulting” to help others, because those are very different roles. And now we are where we are!
Casey: That’s so cool. And it’s also just a huge accomplishment to be able to build a company and then give it to somebody else and have them continue with that success. So tell me, from your perspective, Kathy, and then Jody, how have camps changed in the time that you’ve been doing this?
Kathy: It’s really interesting to have you ask that question because I came prepared yesterday with a list of questions for Jody. That was what the list of questions was: how have they changed.
Casey: I love it! Now that you’ve been talking about it, hopefully you’ll have a good answer.
Kathy: This is kind of unique to me, but early on, one of the earliest articles that I wrote, and presentations that I made, was on trends and how trends get carried out in the camp and retreat field, and how they impact them. And I guess that’s the piece we’ve talked about early on, particularly working with camp and retreat centers that were related to denominations coming out of the United Methodist denomination – and then Lutheran, Episcopal, and Presbyterian. The camps and retreats were often very directly related to that institution. They were often run by volunteers. And in the period of time that I was with Kaleidoscope, there was this total change into the professionalism of the leadership of camps. What that required is a shift in the role of the institution to which that group relates. That shift was kind of tough in some cases. There was a lot of board issues, where board members didn’t understand the role of the board. And then the whole “how do we train our camp people?” And “how do we elevate those concepts and principles so that we’re not just getting together and saying, “well, at my place, we do it this way and at your place, you do it this way,” but rather we’re able to teach the concepts. That evolution really happened during the time that I was working with Kaleidoscope.
Casey: I can imagine at the time that felt huge. I’m sure it felt like a hurricane or an earthquake coming through and kind of shaking up the institution. I think as camp leaders, we look at where we are now. There’s always those big shifts happening. In retrospect, we can look at it and say “that needed to happen,” in the midst of it. It can feel it really challenging for those folks.
Kathy: Right. And it affected fundraising because the camps had been totally dependent upon the institution, understanding that the fundraising needs to be independent of the institution. Hopefully it contributes some, but you really are responsible for your own funding. It was huge.
Casey: What years would you put the range of that happening within?
Kathy: Well, yesterday I was sharing with Jody that one of the first debates that I remember engaging in both at our national camp leaders meetings, and locally, in South Dakota was, iIs it a camp, a business, or a ministry?”
Casey: Yeah. It’s still a question.
Kathy: Yeah, I was asking that. And for the more sophisticated, more developed centers, and probably more independent centers, that is not so much the question now. We’re quite clear that those things, being mission-based, mission-oriented, and responsible for your business and finances, have to happen. It’s one package. But that was one of the very early ones, and the fact that there was not a real understanding in the religious groups of the nature of nonprofits – even though churches are technically nonprofits – they really have a very different structure than a nonprofit institution or organization out in the community. There was not that. The whole question of “how to be mission-oriented” and to take what we do as a ministry with our own local groups – compared them as we needed to generate revenue and expand our services to others so that we had revenue – how do you package that so that you are being true to your mission. And at the same time, you are able to expand. That’s when the whole hospitality issue was raised, and a lot of language around saying, “we don’t just rent space.” If you look up the term “renting,” it’s exchanging space for the money. If we as an organization, religious or not, had a set of principles, that is our mission. Those principles should come to bear on everything we do. However, the ability to conceptualize that mission in terms that are not specifically theological was a big deal.
Casey: I remember the conversation, you know, at a kind of very tactical level, being “do we remove the big banner of Jesus when non-religious group comes in?” It illustrated the idea, “can we still serve them and love them with Christ’s love without having Jesus hanging on the wall?”
Kathy: That was a part of that transition into creating “product.” That’s what it is that you’re going to sell – if you’re going to use secular language. But you do that, within the construct of your mission. All of those were the transition points that were really major.
Casey: Yeah. So take that Jody and run with it. There’s still some of that that lingers, but what do we see as the result of that? Where are we now in that trend and what else has emerged since then? That is the current kind of culture of camps.
Jody: Yeah, those issues are certainly still out there. And we’re still wrestling with some of those, but you know, the pandemic put this marker in place. It’s been so interesting for us. If we just try to track trend lines and see what’s going on, suddenly, 2020, and that trend line is gone. The reality of what’s happened to camps since that point. Kathy and I were talking yesterday about how the outside, the pieces that are happening within culture in a larger sense, is affecting what’s going on at camp. Obviously the pandemic and COVID itself is a giant kind of piece that affects camp, but I think there are some specific things that have come out of the pandemic that aren’t necessarily bad because it causes camps to really step back and reassess.
Casey: I think that for a lot of camps, change is hard. To have to say this program is no longer working and we need to get rid of it is really painful. The pandemic gave it kind of a natural pause to say, “okay, we’re not really getting rid of it. We’re just deciding whether to restart it.” It’s a different kind of change.
Jody: The permission goes both ways. I think the permission to say “that doesn’t make any sense anymore” and “you know what, we’ve been talking about this new idea for the last 27 years, let’s do it and actually get there.” We’re seeing both of those.
Casey: That’s really insightful. It’s so interesting to think that Cathy is talking about the 80s and early 90s, and through the 90s, even those things that were impacting them then, and still have that buzz that hangs on now. There are these new issues that are emerging that introduce themselves along the way, too. I think, when we talk to camps, and we’re doing a full recap of the summer, the universal thing that we’re hearing right now is staffing. Getting enough staff is really, really hard. They’re still getting good quality, which is good to hear. But the quantity is a challenge. I’m curious Kathy, have these ebbs and flows and this pendulum from “hard to hire” to “hard to find people” ever been seen throughout history, or is that a new thing?
Kathy: I definitely think we’ve seen it throughout history, but I do think it’s harder. One of the things that I’ve gotten a new perspective of, a continued sharpened perspective, is how critical it is to have a marketing perspective. And I say that for this reason: marketing is the connection between either the perceived need by the people or you can sometimes see the need that they don’t even know they have.
Casey: Exactly. We talk about the idea of “I go to Target and Target tells me what I need.”
Kathy: Exactly. And the marrying of that with opportunity. And the thing throughout is how far can we take the learning curve into something. Because each one of the points have changed and have primarily been driven by external influence.
Casey: Can you say more about what that means?
Kathy: Some years back when there was a staffing issue, my recollection was, it was around international staff and their visas. These camps that had relied on so many international staff and were suddenly challenged by, and I don’t remember the details of that, but it had to do with the visas and decisions that somebody somewhere else made about that. All of a sudden it affected camps. Right now, the combination of the pandemic just simply disrupting the work for one thing, and the fact that the unemployment rate is so low most places with wages raising, that is putting a heck of a lot of pressure on camps, along with the fact that new laws have come in place that require minimum wage in a different way. Those are external. We don’t anticipate that and know how to address it.
Casey: Right. We understand that most things do swing back and forth. It’s easier, then it’s harder. So Jody, do you see it? And do you anticipate that it will get easier again, or do you think this is just now going to be the baseline and we’re going to struggle with this forever?
Jody: I don’t know that we’ll struggle with it forever. But I think there are new realities. So I think the fact that we need to pay our staff a respectable wage, including our professional staff. Therefore the whole expense side of our budgets aren’t going back. Will that mean we can find staff? I think that piece will come back and forth, but I think the ramp up of the operation expenses and therefore what we need to charge, I think all of that shifts.
Kathy: But the other thing that requires some real question, and it’s maybe totally out of the realm, but when I go to McDonald’s now, I find as many as I would say retirement age people working as I do young people. Now that used to be the realm of kids, if you will, young people. So I mean, what are the options?
Casey: Yeah. So maybe it requires some creative thinking. Maybe we need to staff differently, or maybe our college aged kids are reserved for the interaction with younger campers. But we’ve got an older subset of staff. Maybe it just requires some creative thinking and imagination.
Kathy: If we’re being influenced by the external world, how is the external world answering that? Does that give us any? All the learnings that have seemed to come from history. We need to be paying attention not just in our bubble.
Casey: That’s really cool. I want to shift gears just a little bit because I’m thinking about how Kaleidoscope has been known for master planning and you still are. What are the trends and master site plans that you’re seeing? What are the trends in buildings and functions of spaces that are different now than they were 20-30 years ago?
Jody: A couple of them that are related to this conversation. We’ve been providing staff space that really does honor staff and care for staff and their needs. You know, we used to have a staff lounge that was in the corner and had…
Casey: All the old, icky, past church furniture that they said was not good enough, and then the camps take it?
Jody: Exactly. Right. It was moldy – whatever else. Now we suddenly are having safe spaces and creating safe spaces that have room for a nap. So you can actually take a nap in a private, quiet space. They now have play space.
Casey: It speaks to the huge rise in mental health needs.
Jody: That’s the other piece, right? So we’re creating these, we haven’t come up with the right language yet, but the image is a phone room, because staff and campers maybe have their weekly appointment with their counselor while they are at camp. So we need these private spaces where they can get online, or at least get on a phone. And suddenly, these camper and staff care spaces aren’t just the health center or the office. There’s something else about this holistic nature.
Casey: When I was working as a camp counselor in the 90s, there was a payphone and we took turns calling home on the payphone. That shift is enormous in how camps function. So it impacts the master plan, ultimately.
Kathy: Early on, there was a big push on the part of master plans or site plans to do multi-purpose spaces. You can still do them somewhat, but one of the things that seems to me is that as a whole society, and this has affected the way programming goes, we have refined our programs to be really segmented. We are more focused on particular needs, as opposed to saying, “well, this will serve all these purposes together.” When in fact, those generalized spaces often don’t serve anybody’s purpose.
Casey: Oh, interesting. We say the same thing about marketing, right?
Kathy: Yeah, it follows the marketing. I think the specific space is designed for very particular audiences. When the whole adult movement started, people were going to just put in maybe four bucks. Maybe they’ll be happy with four bucks. Then we can still use it for kids. I mean, there was this mindset of doing multiple things.
Casey: You say that in regard to adults night and I think it brings up another point that kids’ needs and expectations have changed, too. I mean, 30 years ago, putting them in a tent for the week felt like that’s a really cool camp experience and now the expectation is, they need air conditioning, they need a good night’s sleep. And that means, no bugs crawling on them. There’s just a different expectation, good or bad – I don’t know. But things have changed and that influences that master plan. Right, Jody?
Jody: This summer was a tough one. And who knows where we’re going. I have some theories about it, but won’t go into at the moment. But many camps struggled with high temperatures this summer. And suddenly, these camps that are in relatively cool places suddenly have more heat than they can handle and need indoor spaces that have air circulation and air filtration. What does that mean?
Casey: In addition to all those increased needs is increased cost.
Jody: Absolutely. That’s right.
Casey: So, then, do we raise the price of camp? Do we raise more money? And the answer is yes to all of it. Right?
Jody: Yes. Right. Exactly.
Casey: I want to circle back to the beginning of the conversation, Kathy, when I said I remember you from 20 years ago and was in awe, because mostly at that time, in the Lutheran camping world, there were little to no female executive directors. That was probably true in all mainline denominations. And now there are, and it’s really wonderful to see the diversity of perspective that comes with that. We are seeing a little bit more, it’s still not great, but we are seeing a little bit more gender balance. What we’re not seeing is diversity of race and culture and things like that – yet. So, talk to me a little bit about what that’s been like to be a leader in that movement to get women at the helm? And also, what’s your hope for the future?
Kathy: Well, I hope that as you say, there are definitely now more women. I hope that both the women will continue to see this as a viable place and that the institutions that hire them will believe so too. I always actually considered myself to be lucky, because at the time, I was in the United Methodist Church. That was something the United Methodist Church valued, so I felt I had an opportunity in the right place at the right time. Taking the choice to be a consultant was my own choice. And that was just pure bargain.
Casey: It took some nerve. I mean, it took some courage.
Kathy: It hurt my mother when I said I was giving up my job.
Casey: Wow, that’s so interesting. I mean, you know, that’s just the shift in the generation. Now that is so much more commonplace.
Kathy: Well, I have three girls and I have to say that I have great respect for their husbands because my girls had me for a mother, and it shows! Their strength is apparently appreciated, which is good.
Casey: I love that. So now Jody, right? I mean, we’re starting to see more gender balance, and hopefully that continues, and we do end up at a really close 50/50 there on that, but what about all the other ways that leadership and different groups can be represented in leadership? It’s not there, or at least not visible right now. What do you see for the future?
Jody: I’m hopeful. I think we finally are starting to engage other communities and actually ask what other communities want, besides just white kids coming to camp. I think there’s been an important shift over the past 5, 6, 8 years where for a while we were doing our best to say, “hey, y’all come, and we’ll create funding and we’ll create programming to come alongside of it,.” But what that was really doing is inviting persons of color to come to programs that really were meant for someone else. So finally, I think we in the church, we in the not for profit camping, from a bigger perspective of the camping world, are starting to have conversations with leaders in different communities. And so I feel hopeful that’s happening. There’s some good funding and study that’s happening to finally reach out. So I’m hopeful, but there’s a lot of work to do.
Casey: Yeah. What do you feel most hopeful for, for camping, in the future? You know, we’ve had this big shift since COVID. Jody, you’ve talked about this a lot, that there were the haves and the have-nots before COVID. And that’s continued after and some of those have-nots are just going away. And maybe that’s okay. I mean, for the health of the whole institution for all of that. You could make a case for a lot of different validation or justification for those kinds of things happening, but what are you most excited about for the future of camp? In general?
Jody: Interestingly enough, I think COVID gave us a platform, in many ways, and actually put camp in the media and in the societal conversation in ways that we hadn’t been for a long time. So I think there’s a new relevance, a new understanding of camp. It’s not translating everywhere yet, right? But, we do see more kids coming to camp in a lot of places and camps expanding. The amount of growth that we’re seeing in camps that are healthy, and looking to develop another program area, or even another site, is incredible right now. And I think that’s actually a bump out of the pandemic where we said, “you know, we really do need that space away, we really do need a place where we can create community and can be our real self and true self.”
Casey: That just feels so hopeful. It just brings it back to the core of what camp and camp ministry especially is all about. Right? That’s exactly what we were meant to be. And we’re still living that out. How about you, Kathy, when you look at the history, where we are now, what are you most hopeful about?
Kathy: Well, I pretty much would echo that. You know, it’s not just a singular issue, but the amount of screen time that kids engage in – both kids and adults – but it doesn’t mean they’re not related. It means that they are not relating eyeball to eyeball and paying attention to emotional realities in themselves and others. I mean, it’s a whole different kind of relating. And so that personal relationship then expands into the whole community and learning how to do that. I mean, just look around us. The world needs young people who are going to grow up with that as the foundation for how they believe that communities should be as it expands out into the world. So religious camps bring their faith perspective. The private camps are teaching those values, hopefully, and that influence is really, really needed for our future.
Casey: I want to ask about final thoughts or advice for camps. Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you just really want to make sure we do. What’s your piece of advice for camp leaders that are listening to this? What’s your one thing that they ought to be thinking about doing now?
Kathy: Well, as much as possible, look outward and forward. Don’t be afraid to try things. Because the answers typically are not back there. We can learn from the past and we can use structures and we can adapt, but the future is in front of us. And that’s what we need to be addressing.
Jody: Yeah, it was funny. Yesterday, Kathy and I were talking about some of the language that Kaleidoscope has been using forever, around vital and viable. And I know I’ve said this to you, Casey, that when we start working with a camp, I always ask two questions. The first question is, what are you about? What are your primary outcomes? And can you name that clearly? The second question is, how much does it cost to have one person on site for one day? It always amazes me that camps can’t answer those two questions. They can’t answer the clarity of their mission, and they can’t answer their business model. Therefore, they can’t line up vitality and viability. Those are the foundational blocks that they can build off of. It’s been a Kaleidoscope message for years and years and years. And there’s a bit of angst, that it’s still such a primary piece that we’re sharing.
Casey: How much of that has to do with the fact that camp has always been driven by younger leaders, right? I mean, there’s certainly an old school vibe – especially among the more established camps – but there’s always new fresh energy coming in and out and that’s a good thing. But also they don’t get retrained in those kinds of things.
Jody: That’s a piece of it. But it is generational. The other piece of it I think is the nature of the beast. It’s just busy.
Casey: We take care of the urgent over the important.
Jody: We run as fast as we can during the summer, and then we collapse in the fall. And then we start again. There’s not necessarily space and you’ve got to take that space.
Kathy: One of the questions that I was kind of getting to when we were talking yesterday is “what have we learned and what does it have to do with helping the current generation of people, regardless of how old they are, to make decisions to keep this viable.” I think it’s an interesting question – whether or not there’s more depth and detail to look at and whether or not I would put some time into that if there is.
Casey: On a side note, I think the industry could really benefit from you and Jody creating a white paper that answers the question, “how have the trends of 30 years ago changed and how are they showing up now? What are they being replaced with?” Nothing is new under the sun, but unless we’re paying attention to those kinds of underlying things, then we’re missing opportunities.
Kathy: And in another sense, everything is new. The kinds of things that we’re talking about in terms of care facilities and the issues of mental health, gender identification – those were not things that we were dealing with 30 years ago. Keeping those things in balance – the principles and the concepts of what makes it work as a conceptual construct – that actually probably hasn’t changed very much.
Casey: Right. I mean, there’s always going to be those outside things that influence. It’s going to influence how we serve people, who we serve… those kinds of things. I think that the unifying thing throughout, which I think we’ve identified, is that the mission really hasn’t changed that much. Service to others, service to youth, hospitality… those kinds of core things are still the core things, which is the definition of a core value, right? They don’t change very often.
Kathy: But how they get shaped as “products” – actual programs that people experience – you still keep those core values in place. That does change. And I was talking about the fact that it seems like that should be clear to people. But it’s not all that easy.
Casey: I think that what Jody said before comes into play here. When you’re so busy with what’s happening in front of you and don’t stop to live and learn and step back and look at the bigger picture, you miss it.
Kathy: Right. And you just keep doing what you know how to do.
Casey: Yeah, absolutely. Anything else?
Jody: A lot more, but this has been great. Thank you.
Casey: I know. Oh, my gosh – it’s been a treat. Definitely good to see you, Kathy.
Kathy: You too! Thank you!