Finding the right summer camp for your child can be a daunting task.
Parents and guardians need answers to so many questions: What activities does the camp offer? Who runs the camp? What is its philosophy? Is it reputable? Is it safe?
In the midst of all the decision-making and worrying, the Ontario Camping Association (OCA) offers something invaluable — peace of mind.
OCA is a 65-year-old, volunteer, non-profit organization that develops and encourages high standards in children’s camps. The logo OCA member camps are allowed to use is a recognized symbol of accreditation that says the camps (including summer camps and year round camps) live up to quality standards in health, site and facility, safety, leadership, programs, out-tripping, food service, ethics, maintenance, transportation and administration. "These standards try to ensure the health, safety and well being of staff and the campers," says OCA president Barb Gilbert.
Gilbert, who has worked in camping and related fields for more than 18 years, fell in love with the camping experience during childhood summers at Ontario camps.
It was the directors of some of Ontario’s earliest camps who founded OCA in 1933. "They saw a need to get together to do what we do today — share ideas," says Gilbert.
Camp devotees sharing ideas has led to OCA’s comprehensive and thorough procedures for establishing standards and accrediting worthy camps. "We do it because we believe in camping and high standards for camping," says Gilbert.
Many of OCA’s standards evolved from those imposed by the government of Ontario. But, Gilbert says, OCA has higher expectations and focuses on all aspects of camps operation. "We go way beyond what the government officially demands."
Some standards have been in place for decades, but the OCA recognizes that new programs are emerging all the time. Gilbert cites the increasing popularity of rope courses as an example. When the OCA noted the trend, it established a task force and, with the advice of experts in the field, developed rope course safety standards applied to all summer camps and year round camps.
New standards can take up to three years to establish because the OCA strives to be thorough, and to include as many members as possible in the process. "The thrust of the standards isn’t to dictate to camps exactly what they must do," says Gilbert, "but to ensure that they have their eyes open to potential risks."
The accreditation process begins when an owner/operator applies to become an OCA camp member. The camp is granted a provisional membership until it completes the procedure. Until then it isn’t allowed to use the OCA logo, nor is it listed in the OCA Camping Guide.
Each new owner is assigned an OCA mentor, who advises throughout the accreditation process. The mentor visits the camp during the first summer and discusses with the owner what needs to be improved for accreditation.
The official OCA accreditation visit takes place the following summer. An OCA volunteer spends at least four hours at the camp and participates in at least one major activity, measuring the camp’s standards using the OCA’s Guidelines for Accreditation.
A camp must meet all major standards and receive 90 per cent in each section to pass. If it does, and the OCA Board of Directors approves, the owner becomes an accredited camp member who is allowed to use the OCA logo.
"We want people to be successful, that’s why it’s a two-year process," says Gilbert.
The OCA doesn’t hesitate to deny accreditation to camps that don’t live up to its high standards, Gilbert says. But it will work with provisional members until their camps earn accreditation.
Member camps agree to maintain the standards and inform OCA of any significant changes, such as hiring a new director. A significant change triggers an automatic visit. Otherwise, camps are re-visited every four years. If they fail to make the grade, they revert to provisional status until they have a successful visit.
"We make people think about what they are doing and why they are doing it," says Gilbert, and this benefits both the camp and its campers.
Gilbert says she’s happy her organization can offer parents some sense of assurance and guidance when they are trying to choose a camp to meet their child’s needs. "There’s no guarantees ever in life, but we do the best we can."