After Jamie Tibbals dropped her oldest son off for his first summer away at Camp Louemma in Sussex, in 2013, she arrived home in Scotch Plains to discover his properly labelled flashlight lying on her bed. It never made it to camp.
“I sat there and thought, ‘How important is this flashlight?’ It was on the list. But all the kids have just been dropped off.”
Eventually, she called the camp and got a satisfying answer. Throughout his stay there were other nagging, if perhaps trivial, questions, and she didn’t want to waste a director’s time. “And yet I wanted answers,” said Tibbals. “The one piece that was missing that summer was someone to reach, to add a level of service and comfort.”
So she suggested that the camp create a position just to provide someone to respond to questions like hers — the trivial, the critical, and everything in between. The camp thought it was a great idea — and hired her.
As Camp Louemma’s first-ever parent liaison, Tibbals answered questions that summer of 2014 about a child who wasn’t wearing glasses properly and another whose flip-flops broke. One parent forgot to pack a child’s bathing suits, another hadn’t received a letter in a few days.
“Some of these are silly things,” Tibbals acknowledged, but they are still things parents worry about.
While others focus on the kids themselves — making sure they are settling in, making friends, taking medications — her focus is strictly on the parents. And lest you think this is a symptom of the age of the helicopter parent, Camp Ramah in the Berkshires has had a similar position for more than 20 years.
Rabbi Paul Resnick, Ramah’s director, recalled that when he arrived in 1987, he inherited what he calls a “director knows everything” system. It didn’t last long. He added many staff positions, including the “adviser,” which he created in the early 1990s. That staff member has two roles: staff support for the head of an age group (rosh edah) and parent contact.
“Sometimes it’s a call that it looks like my child has been wearing the same shirt for three days, or I haven’t seen my child in a photo,” Resnick said. “Or it could be more significant, like the parents are going away and need to share that information with the camp, or they got a letter from a child who was sick or didn’t get the activity they wanted, or, because of the tone of a letter, the parents think the child should have a therapy session by phone.”
From Resnick’s perspective, parents’ anxiety has risen since 9/11, particularly at camps on the east coast.
“The parents are more needy,” Resnick said. “They want more contact and more photos.” (In the first year they did so, Resnick estimates the camp posted 50 photos a day to its website. Today the number is more like 500.)
But how much contact is too much? Does this position simply enable over involved parents?
It’s a question Resnick and Tibbals have wrestled with. At a recent meeting, Resnick said, parents requested more photos and suggested that counselors be given cameras and take pictures. Resnick said no. He said he told them, “Part of the magic of camp is children having these experiences without you knowing all the details of what they do every minute of the day.”
He added, “We are cautiously aware of enabling helicopter parents, but we also want kids to have a great experience. There’s a balance.”
For Tibbals, “It is enabling — but from 10,000 feet.” A position like hers is a way to assuage parents without getting their kids involved. In response to the request about the youngster with the glasses, she told the parent she’d look into it. She did. The kid was wearing them properly. “When kids are away, parents are anxious and want to make sure they’re OK. There’s no harm in this.” She added, “It offers comfort when a child is far away.” Some campers have come to Louemma from Nevada, Colorado, and other regions of the country.
Not every camp administrator sees the need to add this position. Len Robinson, director of NJ Y Camps, said he wants and expects these phone calls, and absolutely does not want parents to think anything is too trivial to bother him, or an assistant director.
“I believe those who run the show need to be involved in all the issues, good and bad, directly, and people should have access to people at the top,” he said. “I want to deal directly with parents with no intermediaries. I want the ‘my-kid-has-not-smiled-in-a-photo-for-four-days’ calls. I encourage parents to call. That’s our job!”
As for Tibbals, in addition to serving as parent coordinator, she is now also an assistant director at Camp Louemma.