Camp Blue Skies Created a Virtual Camp Experience in Just 5 Days!

In today’s episode of Fundraising Superheroes we talk to Richard Sesler, the founder of Camp Blue Skies in Charlotte, North Carolina. They host camps for adults with disabilities to socialize and learn life skills. When Covid-19 hit they only had 5 days notice to create a virtual experience for their campers. We will walk you through the lessons learned that can be applied at any nonprofit needing to pivot their events quickly, including having a great communication strategy, utilizing free online tools and collaborating with your stakeholders to ensure everyone is on board.  

Official Transcript:

Sabrina: Hello and welcome to Fundraising Superheroes, a podcast celebrating non for profit organizations and all the people that work to make the world a better place. This podcast is brought to you by Donor Engine. You can save hours of time and do so much more for less with their all in one nonprofit software. Visit today to learn how your organization can spend less time managing your nonprofit and more time focusing on your cause  

Today on the show we have Camp Blue Skies, they provide camps to adults with developmental disabilities and enhance their lives through recreation, socialization and life skills education. I'm really excited to have their founder Dick Sesler on the show, he's going to tell us how they've been adapting to the Covid-19 crisis and a little more about their organization so thank you so much Dick for being on the show!

Dick: Happy to be here, thank you!

Sabrina: So can you begin by telling us how the foundation came to be?

Dick: Sure, so I made the observation that when my son Brent who's now 38 years old and has Williams Syndrome which is a rare genetic disorder, when he turned 21 and aged out of our school system almost all activities having to do with recreation and socialization just sort of disappeared. And I thought we can do something about that. I always been a big fan of camps and I thought if there's a way where we could start an organization that provided week-long overnight camps for adults who have developmental disabilities like autism or down syndrome or my son's case Williams syndrome. If they could have a week of enjoying all the traditional camp activities and have a week away from their caregivers it would be just a wonderfully enjoyable and enriching experience and it's up and it's turned out to be exactly that. 

Sabrina: Yeah, camp is just fun for everyone I find, so it’s really amazing that not only you created this organization but you’re also reaching people all across the states. I know you were telling me before we started recording that you had one guest, one camper coming in from New Zealand which is insane! So that’s phenomenal, like it sounds like you guys are really taking off

Dick: Well we found a niche that really isn't served almost anywhere else in the country, at least to the extent that we do. And we had campers for one week which was all geared to one disability, Williams Syndrome, and the campers were coming in from 18 states and as you mentioned New Zealand and also Nova Scotia. So, these camps are fulfilling such a need that we actually fill the camps up, our camps typically have 65 to 70 Campers and in a matter of 24 hours when we open up application. 

Sabrina: Holy, ya that’s quick. You guys are currently celebrating 10 years in operation which is phenomenal, how have the last 10 years been and what is the biggest thing you learned over the decade?

Dick: So, a couple of things. One we started with what has turned out to be a pretty good idea that it was an unmet need and we put together a phenomenal team to help Implement that and I think we've been very consistent and thoughtful and creative in our programming and our recruitment of volunteers. And kind of sticking to our mission but as we're going to talk about a little bit being flexible when you have to go in a different direction. But I think that the lessons learned is that from a fundraising standpoint if you have a good idea and you could show people that you're different and you're fulfilling a need, it is- well fundraising is never easy. I would success from a fundraising standpoint is been the good idea and the implementation. 

And then I think importantly is our business model. What we do is we rent camp in their offseason, so every good camp is full from June 1st to August 15th this summer,  upcoming summer is an exception of course. But our campers are not on an academic  calendar, so we rent camps when they're virtually empty. Either one can be rented for a couple of weeks in March and another two weeks in October, those are the swing seasons we're often the weather is terrific so from a fundraiser raising person who looks at our business model- Or a donor standpoint, I’m sorry. A donor standpoint that looks at our business model and sees that we are very efficient, all of our funds go into the camp experience for the campers. I think they appreciate that. That’s one of the biggest lessons we learned over 10 years. 

We started with one week in a camp in North Carolina, a year later we opened up a week in Georgia and since then we've added extra weeks in North Carolina and Georgia. And now where we can camp in South Carolina. 

Sabrina: That’s a really smart idea, renting on the off seasons. Why work harder when you can work smarter right? Less competition and like you said you can put more money into the activities. 

Dick: Yes, it really just focuses our efforts on recruiting and screening the campers, recruiting and screening the volunteers. It’s a little more of a challenge to recruit volunteers in the spring in the fall because of the lack of students that we could use as volunteers, so there are adults. But once somebody comes out to volunteer for a week it’s on their calendar every year after that. 

Sabrina: Oh that’s fantastic! What’s super interesting about your organization is that you were able to move the camp experience online. How did you start deciding to make that shift to an online camp experience, cause I know a lot of people are struggling right now if they should cancel events or if they should adjust their events. So what was the main thing that drove you to do that?

Dick: So, the starting point is that from the very beginning everybody in our group, our team has worked remotely. We actually don’t have a physical office so that has required us to have weekly conference calls. Lots of in-person one on one meetings here and there, physically getting together a couple times a year. 

When this whole concept of working at home and being faced with distancing, we’ve always been doing that. What caused the virtual camp concept to come into play was of course the fact that  early in March, actually March 5th we concluded that we could not hold the two weeks that were ready to begin just five days from then.  And so we, our team and our medical staff as well as our board made a decision on a Tuesday to cancel camp that was to begin on that Saturday actually. So we immediately had to go into a communication mode with all of our campers, all of our caregivers and parents, and  all of our volunteers, all of our programmers and as I said we had to get to catch people before they got on airplanes. Particularly the camper and parents who were literally at the airport in New Zealand when we called them. 

 So we made that decision Tuesday night, Wednesday morning we brought our whole team together kind of virtually for a brainstorm to quickly come up with a plan that tried to replicate as much as we could of the important parts of camp that are part of our mission. And part of our mission of course is socialization, and we tried to implement that with our private Facebook group. To open it up to are they campers or encourage campers to communicate and show us fun pictures and videos of what they were doing. 

Another part of our mission is emphasizing the importance of recreation and then additionally the importance of good nutrition. So we brainstormed and found ways to meet our mission so we filmed a video with exercise and yoga exercises. We had a friend video on healthy eating tips and snack recipes. We did a sing-along video and then we put together very quickly a packet of materials for every camper and then we sort of replicated it for all the volunteers. We already had all of our t-shirts so we thought that would be fun for a camper to get a t-shirt. We do goal bracelets at camp so we included that. And then we had some activities that we put into an envelope and mailed it off to all the campers and then as we were mailing those out we gave heads up to all the parents and caregivers explaining what virtual camp would look like.

So the camper received their package. We asked them to post pictures and videos on a private Facebook group as I mentioned and it was just such a kick to see what the campers were coming up with, the virtual activity banners and and other things that we included in the package.

So we did the virtual camp because we kind of had to do because of the cancellation, but what I was most proud of was how quickly we put it together and how creative we were. 

Sabrina: That's awesome, so would you say the response from campers has been really positive? Did a lot of them adjust easily did that online experience?

Dick: Well, yes and that no because of the kind of the tech savviness of our population and their caregivers we have a wide range and I'm sure this is true with a lot of schools and other places but a wide range of internet capability and capacity to get online. So we were confident that every camper received and certainly would enjoy their packet of information but the response back on the private Facebook group was maybe 50% of the campers. We would have liked to maybe have more but we were pretty happy with the responses, they of course were incredibly positive so it was a kick to see. 

Sabrina: What are some of the specific digital tools, I know you mentioned Facebook but were there any other resources you used to help create this virtual experience?

Dick: So one of the members of our team uses an app called Canva, C-A-N-V-A to help create our activity sheets. And then pretty much the rest of the tools we already had in place or we found an app that allows you to take an ordinary photo and it converts into kind of a colouring book if you will. And for certain of our campers just creating some kind of artwork from that. That was a lot of fun and we saw some terrific results from that. 

Sabrina: That’s really cool, so it's having people kind of create their own activities at home?

Dick: Yes, and than sharing them

Sabrina: How long did it take you to create all the camp materials and put the program in place? I know you had a very short amount of time from the moment that you decided to cancel to implementing the program. But what was that whole process like, what did the days leading up to that look?

Dick: So, as I kinda said we made the decision on a Tuesday, officially Tuesday night with the board meeting. And Wednesday we started thinking through all of the opportunities and creative ways we could start this virtual camp. And by Wednesday the next week we had everything in place all the envelopes ready and everything out to both the campers and the caregivers. So because these camps mean so much to these campers, we've had caregivers tell us that two most important things to their camper each year is Christmas and Camp Blue Skies.

So we knew how disappointed they must be so we immediately created a video actually the next day that told the campers out sorry we were about having to cancel camp in a little, couple of the reasons. And then of course we went through the routine of social distancing and washing hands and kind of having some fun with that because we wanted to immediately touch base with the campers because of their huge disappointment, so we didn't want to wait a month or two. We wanted to have everything, the videos out and the materials within a week.

Sabrina: Do you think that this whole experience will change how you operate long-term?

Dick: Well I hope we don’t have to do this again, cause there's no substitute for physically being at camp and being with your friends. The whole idea is the socialization and being able to try new things and gain confidence.  And as much as virtual Camp is and it's the opposite of that so we hope we don't have to do it again, but we've got the tools in place. One time we did have to cancel camp for a couple days of camp because of the hurricane and so I think we'll be able to have things in place to do that. We may, because the cancer only you know two times a year, we may find an opportunity to take some of these virtual activities and do them on a periodic basis in between camps once things start to sort themselves out. 

Sabrina: Did your team or did yourself learn anything from this whole experience? 

Dick: Well, we learned a lot. Some of which is just sort of the basics and then it starts with communication and importantly to get everybody on board. To get the full buy-in by everybody on our team which is like 11 or 12 people, and then to get the full buy-in of our board and then the buy-in from our major donors. And once we had everybody really on board we were confident enough to make creative decisions ahead and move forward in a way that we thought would be beneficial to our customers if you will. And our customers are not only just the campers, importantly it includes the caregivers who at least when we were having the physical camps they get a well-deserved week of rest. And that just doesn't doesn't happen with everybody having to stay inside and so the virtual camp might be a break and might be a fun activity for the campers and the caregivers to share, but there's no substitute for being a week of not having to be 24/7 as most caregivers are. 

Sabrina: Ya that’s something that I didn’t even think about it probably is a relief for them to have that week to decompress this way when life does get back to normal they are more energized and excited to get back to work. 

Dick: Yes they are, it’s been really fun to see the caregivers over the years gain confidence in the safety and the enjoyment of their campers so that they're confident that they can go on a vacation and really take some time off. And I really enjoy talking to the caregivers about that both when they dropped her off and then when they come back with big smiles on their face after having a week of rest. 

Sabrina: Oh definitely, so thank you so much Richard, for joining us today. For those listening you can learn more about Camp Blue Skies at their website, They have a ton of information about the camp there so if you are definitely interested in learning more that’s the place to go.
As always, thank you so much for listening and we’ll see you next time on fundraising superheroes!
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