On Saying “No”

3527930354_e30208d288_o.jpgThere comes a time in every camp director’s life when they have to tell someone “no.” Not
the average, everyday “no, you can’t have a slip and slide for village night” or “no, I can’t let your child come to the phone.” I’m talking about the hard ones. The “no, I’m sorry, you’ve made a terminal mistake.” The turning down of donations for ethical reasons. The denials of return employment, the telling a guest group to leave, and the hardest of all – the “no” that breaks a person’s heart.


I’m not so good at this part of the job. It hurts my heart to deny access to our amazing programs at any level because of mistakes or poor planning.

Anecdote time: Bill* was a co-counselor with Tim* in the littlest boys’ cabin. Tim came to me complaining about Bill’s odd behavior: he refused to shower with anyone in the cabin, he hadn’t washed his clothes, and he made the boys line up outside in the sun instead of napping during siesta. I called Bill into my office to speak with him and Tim about the complaints. He didn’t deny that he had behaved this way; in fact, he expressed that it’s absolutely normal for him. Tim agreed that the shower thing was ok – he would compromise and take the last guard shift so Bill could shower at pool time. I insisted that he allow the boys to nap during siesta, and told him that any of us would teach him to do his laundry.
About a week later, I was walking through the boys’ village and noticed all the little guys lined up in the hot, hot sun. Bill was talking to them about life in Australia, his home country. Tim was on the cabin porch, looking helpless. I sent the kids to siesta with Tim and a Junior Counselor and asked Bill to stay behind. We talked about the issue, and I let him know right then that his repeat offense was not ok. I went back to my office, consulted with my administration team, and got the ball rolling for his departure from camp. On Friday, two of us sat down with Bill and explained why his dream job just wasn’t working out. We took him to the bus into the city and connected him with the placement agency. There were tears, pleading, apologizing, and heartfelt gratitude from each of us.

That same summer, a company came to us to donate baseball caps and a music video. We were all pretty excited! The campers worked together and came up with dances, the staff stayed up all night making banners by their request, and we even passed out t-shirts so our branding was all over the screen.
The taping went off without a hitch, but when the final video came to us, not one mention of our camp (a free one for children who really need camp) was on the screen. We had been fed a line, bribed with snap backs, and used for someone else’s gain. I had to call and give that one a big fat “no.” I called in the big guns on the board who eventually got our logo visible by hook or by crook, but I will never allow my mission to be taken advantage of again.

I also found out after summer that Bill had been moved to another camp that had private lodging for staff lifeguards (he was a great one!) and he was thriving in that capacity.

We are in the business of affirmation. We find a way to make the ice cream social happen. We give staff members third chances. We check in on children and actually remember to call mom to reassure her. We happily accept that our lives will be on hold for the summer just to say “yes” to those who need to hear it most. So it hurts us to say “no.”

And that’s just it. I want the best for my staff, campers, and volunteers, but I can’t compromise programming and our mission. When I can’t affirm them or gently nudge them down a better path, sometimes I have to say that dreaded two letter word.

I always remember Bill, though. Bill was so great at the job part, it was the down time that got him. He was told no and, while that was difficult and heartbreaking, he ultimately was given permission to fly.

Sometimes “no” is the best word you can say.

*not their real names.