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April 26, 2007 Edition

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Keeping children safe:
Creating safe environments

Safety is most certainly a concept that is close to our hearts and minds, particularly in our post-9/11 society.

Parents, in particular, feel an almost primal urge to safeguard our children. The recent spate of school violence, especially in nearby communities, only heightens our concerns. What can we do to keep our children safe?

To be honest, we must all acknowledge that absolute safety is unrealistic - too many variables are outside of our control (weather, viruses, other drivers, etc.).

But there is much that we can do to create safe spaces and environments for ourselves and others, and it is of the utmost importance that we do so, in our homes, our schools, our camps, our workplaces, our sports teams - in all of our communities.

At Camp Gray, we take this responsibility very seriously, and we are constantly evaluating our efforts in this area.

Evaluate and feedback

We recently had the privilege to participate in the American Camp Association's (ACA) Program Improvement Pilot, which gave us the opportunity to evaluate how well we were helping campers grow. As part of this process, we gathered feedback from campers, which included information on how safe campers felt at camp.

Our campers told us that, by and large, they feel very safe at camp. They appreciated clear rules and expectations, consistent enforcement of the rules, and staff who are approachable and who care about the campers.

However, we recognized that we can do even better, and we implemented some new strategies to help campers feel even safer while at camp.

The results of our follow-up survey told us that our campers do feel safer.

The Big Five

On the first day of each camp session, each cabin group gathers to create their own group "contract," which sets out behavior expectations for the week.

Each contract is based on the "Big Five," which are the basic expectations that we expect of everyone at camp, regardless of who they are, and where they are at. By making this clear immediately, and enforcing it consistently, we find that our campers feel safer. Here are the "Big Five":

Respect (respect for ourselves, for others {including their opinions, their right to speak, and their privacy}, for God's creation, for camp's and others' property, and for the sacred spaces in camp {such as our chapels})

Commitment to Growth (we expect and encourage each person to make an effort to learn about themselves, to learn about others, to try new things {taking appropriate risks}, and to let others grow at their own pace {we call it challenge by choice})

Safety (we acknowledge that we can grow only if we are respected by others, we commit to making it safe for people to be honest {no put-downs}, and we commit to watch out for each other {we need to be good "bystanders"})

Relationship (we commit to be open to new people, and to learn what it means to live with others - even those who are different from us)

Fun (we pledge to remain open to the surprises of life, and to practice having a positive attitude)

Our commitment to our camp families is that we will continue to live by the "Big Five," and make it a priority to make camp a safe place for our children. With consistent effort and God's help, we all can create safe communities throughout our society.

Phil DeLong is director of Camp Gray, a ministry of the Diocese of Madison located near Baraboo. Their Web site is www.campgray.com

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Diocese of Madison, The Catholic Herald
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