Monday, June 29, 2020


Camp Fox (Circa mid 1980s) Note: green hills behind the dining hall.

(40 Summers 40 Lessons Series)

In the late 80’s, I had a great tour of a camp that was one of the premiere places to go in Southern California. And the director, Carl, gave me those great words of advice about 20 times during the tour. "Camp is all about where you put the poop." (He may have used a different word.)

I had recently been promoted to a leadership position at a camp and was told to expect a call from Carl. He was from a nearby association and was known as one of the premiere camp directors on the West Coast. His reputation was derived on how he built up the facilities and made huge investments in the infrastructure of the Camp and drove the program forward (as well as enrollment).

Camp Fox was a destination. Situated on Catalina Island, (cue song, “26 miles across the sea, Santa Catalina…”) it was a great place to spend a summer or even just a week during one of their sessions. Water features and traditional programming for a YMCA Camp.

Carl was proud of the camp and he liked to share the upgrades and what he accomplished. He was one of the first people to share with me, which was “no one likes to donate to a toilet” at a camp. It wasn’t sexy or attractive.

Needless to say, I got that call form Carl and met him in San Pedro for the early boat over to the island. The tour was classic Carl. It involved the best features of what he had invested a great deal of his time and dollars raised. The septic system.

As we strolled around he talked about the system and how it was designed and managed. He described that on the Island, the leach fields for a septic system could not go towards the beach and the water. His solution was simply brilliant. A series of pumps from the dining hall and restroom facilities that pumped everything uphill in several locations. He was particularly proud of the hillside where the series of underground leach fields dispersed and made that area’s grass and growth, just a bit greener.

Throughout the tour he keep sharing how “camp is all about where you put the poop.” It really did not matter how many people attended, how much you had for them to do or even how good the quality of food was. Ultimately, where the poop went was extremely important. He talked about different challenges that had occurred in his tenure. The conversations always led back to septic issues.

I thought I had an idea about what he was referring too.  The previous years, I had been a part of several backpacking trips in the Sierras and upon each night’s camp set up, we would determine, “girls tree on the left, boy’s tree on the right.”  I shared that with Carl in an attempt to show my understanding of just what he was talking about.

He stared at me as if, I had no clue. It was confounding. I had the time and attention from one of the premier camp guru’s of the day. He, on the other hand, was shaking his head like I was never going to get it and should just go back to my journalism focus and work at newspaper. He didn’t say it, but in my head he thought I had no business working as a Camp Director.

He had asked me if there were things that I wanted to know about camp and he would gladly answer my questions. I asked about volunteers, and the board, as well as managing staff, new program ideas and activities. It was as if each time I asked a question, he would describe some detail aspect of his septic and engineering that was required to pump the poop uphill.

I’d like to say that I had a deep connection with Carl and he became a mentor. In fact, he seldom ever gave me the time of day again. I’d see him from time to time at training's or camp gatherings. More often I would introduce myself to him and he would get that same look as if he recalled, “oh yeah, that guy who doesn’t get it about the poop.”
Like a good septic system, my ability to process what he was distributing took some time and eventually I benefited from the nutritious information.

It occurred to me, sometime later, that the wisdom Carl was dispensing had everything to do with leading others. Carl shared what John Maxwell shares as the Law of Intuition. Carl framed everything through a leadership lens. He was sharing how intuitive leaders as they lead. Leaders share that intuition through their area of strength. He just had the most fertilizing method with which to say it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

1982 - The Myth of Kumbaya (Part 2, When I First Heard The Story)

1982 – The Myth of Kumbaya (Part 2, When I First Heard The Story)
(40 Summers 40 Lessons Series)

I have heard a great version of the Kumbaya song/story on two different occasions. The first was from a great guy named “Cookie” (I do not recall his real name). He was from the Verdugo Hills, California area and we were sharing a bus going from VH to Pasadena and then on to camp (about a four-hour ride in all).

Cookie was one of those tall, long legged, tan outdoorsy people with a beard. He always had a smile on his face, and he seemed to have his guitar with him when he needed it. He would be doing an activity and interacting with campers and it just showed up. His guitar would be in his hands and I would always think, “Was that there a minute ago?” 

It was the summer I turned 18. Cookie must have been at least a decade older just from how he carried himself and his demeanor.

Our responsibilities that week were to chaperone the campers from our respective region (Verdugo Hills and Pasadena, respectively) and make sure that they incorporated everyone into the general camp population with the Orange YMCA (the primary lead group for the teen session).

We shared a room at the lodge and I never recall seeing him there other than late at night or as he was walking out the door in the morning fully prepped for the day with his guitar on his back.

Cookie and I had some great talks in passing moments throughout the session and late at night. It was after twilight on Wednesday of that week he said, “Let’s go to the tent cabins” (a grouping of three cabins near the archery range where they shared a small campfire space in between the buildings. We both had campers that had been intermingled into those cabins and they had invited several of the older girl’s cabin group for a late evening fire.

It was very social to begin with and Cookie and two of the other leaders with guitars began leading songs.  I was standing near the edge of one of the cabins and he wandered over to ask if I knew the song “Kumbaya?” He had a gleam in his face and I think he winked as he asked me about the song. I had answered yes, and he nodded towards the fire as if to say, stand with me. And, I did.  

As he was strumming, he began telling a story about his life and background. It was past that gloaming part of the evening. Cookie seemed to have everyone’s attention and respectful silence without having to do anything then stand, strum, and share.

Earlier that day, two of my campers from the Pasadena area had been struggling with homesickness and had been feeling like they were not part of their cabin groups. The conflict erupted as a result of a simple lack of respect for one another and a classic us versus them attitude that is ingrained in every culture.

I had intervened at the request of the overall Camp Director. I shared with them my own attempts to be part of the staff team even though I was not from their area. My empathy skills were still a long way in developing, and I thought sharing my own struggle would be a way to bond and overcome the conflict.

I had also shared with them to find someone that they admired and would want to be like, and I used Cookie as an example. That evening they were smiling, talking to other campers, and nodding their comfort level to me as I followed Cookie up onto the dirt center stage.

Cookie’s story meandered about his background and he got to a point where he shared about his not too distant ancestors who were coal miners. He spoke of the factory towns. He spoke of how they were a lot like camp. Everyone supported one another in good times and bad. There was a deep connection.

His story turned as he talked about the times when a mine collapses. The siren would blare, and everyone would run to the mine to help or wait for word from below. His guitar strumming took a turn into the cords of what I recognized immediately as “Kumbaya,” having had his earlier cue.

It was magical and it captured the evening at the end of the day of strife and homesickness as well an air of reconciliation.

“Someone was crying” went the lyrics and then they were “Praying,” followed by “laughing” and ultimately the interpretative “Come by here.”

By this time, there seemed to be camaraderie in the air and my conflicted campers where all side by side hugging and swaying.

It seemed to my youthful eyes and senses; that at the end of that day, holding hands, and singing Kumbaya was a great lesson.

Friday, June 12, 2020

1981 – The Myth of Kumbaya (Part 1)

Big Tony - One of those lifelong friends who planted seeds of Kumbaya.

(40 Summers 40 Lessons Series)

I have often thought that the term “holding hands and signing Kumbaya” was completely misunderstood. I have heard many speakers and leaders use the term in less than positive ways. There was even a Slate article back in 2012 around election time that suggested that it had gone from a “sincere protest song to drippy punch line.”

Imagine a suburban neighborhood 2 bedroom house with a backyard pool. That was our YMCA in Temple City. When I worked in our Day Camp program, we always started the day with announcements and songs. Tony Del Negro was our Day Camp leader and in the morning gathering, he would often make a great attempt to lead the singing for Kumbaya.

“Big Tony” as we called him (because there was a “little Tony” who worked there as well) would stammer through the lines often making up lyrics to demonstrate how the day was going. For example, if a child had been crying, he would emphasize the lyric, “Someone’s crying my Lord, Kumbaya.” Or perhaps a couple of campers had a fight and Big Tony would add that lyric. One time, one of the campers broke a window and Tony decided to commemorate it in song. “Someone broke a window my Lord, Kumbaya.” Of course, we would all repeat the lyric and sing on. In addition, of course, he would croon with “Al will fix the window my Lord, Kumbaya.” It was both And we would repeat. It was often heartfelt and sometimes it bordered on blasphemy.

It was not until years later, when I was introduced to the Story of Kumbaya. The meaning, I learned, was from an origin story about South Africans and their labor in coal mines in the 1800s. How the mixed lyrics that eventually ended in the Gullah folklore of the United States and part of the Creole language. (The US Library of Congress shows the song originating around 1926 with the reference in recordings. Perhaps the most famous version sung by Joan Baez.)

Despite Big Tony’s “Kumbaya,” and the several different versions, I have always heard in nearly 40 years of camping with the YMCA, Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs as well as 4H had several similar components. Someone was always “crying, praying, singing,” and “laughing.” And in most versions, someone always called upon God, to “Come by hear.”  

At the end of the day, it was all about bringing our community together. Like any community, that day camp had conflict and collaboration. We circled up in one big community, we held hands, and we sang.

I can only hope that our leaders in church, community groups, local, regional, national, and international governments all end their day by holding hands and singing Kumbaya. It is just another lesson from the camp world. It is a love letter to genuine skills that we should all apply in our lives.

John Maxwell shares these “Lessons from King David”

1. He was relational: David's personable and approachable manner enticed hundreds of misfit volunteers to serve him. David accepted anyone.
2. He was resourceful: David made use of every situation and got the best out of it-even in the wilderness. He resourced his team to become all it could be and enabled it to succeed.
3. He was rewarding David quickly shared both rewards and recognition for victory. He affirmed his men and motivated them with words of encouragement and spoils from battle.
4. He was respectable: David modeled a leadership style that others wanted to imitate. Friends and foes alike respected him; people saw in David an example of good leadership.

I believe that David would have embraced Kumbaya. I think of Tony in the same way. One of those early influences (and a lifelong friend) that planted a seed of Kumbaya moments.

The joke goes, that camp folks like to sit around a campfire and hold hands and sing Kumbaya. A fundamental part of delegitimizing the things is really of no consequence. I am here to tell you that that could not be the furthest thing from the truth.

Tony planted a seed in my thought process that would germinate. At the end of every day, no matter who you work with and the conflict or fellowship you encounter, we all want to gather in that unity. Making friends and allies like David and bringing them into our confidence.

I have had my critics and my allies, and I have made every attempt to make sure that I treat both in a kind manner. I want to hold hands and sing Kumbaya with all of them regardless of their opinion.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

1994 - That Time I Was An International Arms Dealer For Camp

George (right) and Tom (left) working on Moose (center big green thing).

1994 - That Time I Was An International Arms Dealer For Camp
(40 Summers 40 Lessons Series)

Background - Camp Bluff Lake has been a resident camp for youth for over 70 years. For a portion of that time, the volunteers and staff acquired, restored, and maintained a World War II era half-track that was driven from Glendale, CA to the San Bernardino Mountains where the camp was located. It became a vital piece of equipment that helped the staff and volunteers move equipment, keep roads open, and make its way across the forest service roads in and around the property. In 1994, it threw a track and became inoperable. 

Here is my story:
The phone rang in my office and as I answered, George, our Board Chairperson, immediately exclaimed, “We’ve got ‘em.”
I knew instantly what he was talking about since my return as the Camp Director at Camp Bluff Lake. I had spent most of my teen years at the camp and since a faithful day in my 18th year, it had been my goal to be the director.

George had spent the better part of the previous 3 decades as a key volunteer and was currently the chairperson. We had been searching for tracks for the piece of equipment, affectionately known as “Moose” for the last 7 months since it became clear that one of the tracks had seen its final days. He and his son, Tom, had spent hundreds of hours making sure that Moose would continue to provide a service to those who attended volunteered and worked at the camp.

The camp was situated at the end of a five-mile long forest service dirt road that was essentially closed from December 1 to May 1 most years when the weather was cooperative. Moose had been used to haul fallen trees and the occasional flatlander who ventured to the roads with their lifted new 4x4 as well as many other essential services that no other vehicle could provide.

The call was a result of months of searching and the board had nearly given up all hope that it was even worth pursuing. George, well he was relentless and a “never say never” person. He was convinced that we could not loose Moose. There had even been an offer from someone in Big Bear who offered to purchase it and do a makeshift repair to get the half-track operational again.

Since my return to the Camp that previous spring, I had been worried about the true cost of operations and Moose was one of those variables that you could never quite measure. George and Tom had spent so much time in maintaining Moose for nearly three decades. I saw perhaps a few hundred dollars a year in basic maintenance cost for oil filters and springs and such. It never amounted to an outrageous amount. I did know that the George had been footing the bill for some time or some of the larger expenses. He was a true volunteer. He raised money; he showed up for work weekends, he spent weeks of his vacation at camp during the summer. He involved his entire family and he gave. In every sense of the word, he gave.

Ever since I had become part of the administration at camp some 7 years earlier, he would never tell me what to do. He would just say something like ask yourself, “how does this help camp? If it is a good decision, which will help the kids, then that’s the right thing to do.”

It was through this filter that George taught me to operate and how he determined that Moose was an asset and we had to have it repaired. It was a clear united vision and it required different skills from different people to complete. George really introduced me to an infinite mindset that I have built on from decade to decade.

This was just at the beginning of personal computers and while we had email and chat rooms, there really was not an internet, as you know it today. I found a guy in Oklahoma who I had read about in a journal about restoring military equipment. I tracked him down and got a phone number that was somehow his house number. (People used to have phones in their home before the MCPE – Modern Cell Phone Era).

The guy, Chris, called me back and we discussed World War II surplus military equipment. It was not so much a discussion as him telling me where and when it had all been and where it all ended up. So, it seems that during the Reagan administration, what was left of WWII surplus was sold to the country of Jordan, in the Middle East.

I knew at that moment that our agency’s administration would not allow me to travel to the Middle East in search of tracks for an outdated piece of equipment. I did know that we would not be able to function without some larger piece of equipment like a tractor or otherwise that in the mid-90’s would cost at least $20,000 or more.

Ultimately, we spent about $1700 per track and found a few donors as well as using that year’s allocation from our operations budget for vehicle repairs that we acquired the tracks. Chris made the connections and began the shipping process from Jordan and all that was required through customs and somehow delivered at the end of Forest Service Road 2N10 in the San Bernardino Mountains.

I think of George often and the lessons that I gained under his guidance and mentoring. Things like, ask people to donate when you install a water heater; Bluff Lake water is good for you; executive committee meetings are best done in a hot tub serving wine. His leadership demonstrated what John Maxwell calls his law of victory. “Unity of vision, diversity of skills, plus a leader is needed to win. Leaders find a way for the team to succeed.”

I know now that my friend and mentor, George, was always thinking of ways that helped us succeed in no uncertain terms. He did not always measure victory in the form of dollars and gains. He measured it in the ways that served the youth that we could influence. What a great definition for leadership.

George (right) and yours truly at camp circa 1995.

Postscript – Moose was eventually purchased by the gentlemen who lived in Big Bear. He restored it and maintains it to this day. Every now and then, reports of a World War II half-track driving on Skyline Road come into the local police department.

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