On March 11, 2021, Agawam hosted a virtual info session for alumni and anyone interested in hearing about the preparations Agawam is making to ensure a safe and fun summer for staff and campers. Discussion led by “Chief” Erik Calhoun (Director), “Admiral” Peter Wilson (Agawam Council President) and “Bos’n” Bill Auerswald (Agawam Council Treasurer) reviewed current enrollment, COVID-necessitated changes, preparedness of our physical plant, and how we stand financially after a full summer off.
If you were unable to attend or you would like to review the session, the video is now available for viewing on Camp Agawam’s YouTube channel.
Click the link to access the video of the Alumni Info Session.
Below is the transcript if you prefer to digest the information that way. Many thanks to “Loot” Bob Fryer for transcribing the session.
Camp Agawam Alumni Info Session
March 11, 2021
(edited for clarity)
Admiral Peter Wilson: Welcome to our 2nd Agawam Alumni Focused Town Hall. Great to see so many familiar faces and many of those with campers in the ranks at Agawam.
“Chief” Calhoun – Camp Director and great partner and leader with the Agawam Council which is effectively the governing board for all activities like Camp Agawam, Main Idea, etc.
- “Mander” Malm – Chief Technical Officer for this event, Assistant Camp Director and a key member of the Leadership Staff that runs camp and works closely with the Agawam Council.
- “Bos’n” Bill Auerswald – Agawam Council Treasurer, CFO for a major private school, coach, referee, skier, avid boater, father of a camper and long-time trustee after a similarly long connection as camper, counselor and part of the Leadership Team for Camp Agawam.
Some nuts and bolts of our session here tonight:
- Recording this session so we can publish a transcript.
- You will see a poll pop up here shortly which helps us know more about how people are hearing about these events and lets us improve our communications.
- We have some questions that have been submitted in advance which we will attempt to answer throughout our time together tonight.
- Mander will also be fielding live questions via chat and we hope to work some of those in as well.
After my into, I’ll pass to “Chief” for a few words, To Bill Auerswald for some financial perspective, then back to “Chief” with more in depth information about setting up to run Main Idea and a Full Season of Camp Agawam.
So many things about this past year have been hard to believe…….Where to start.
One fact that’s a bit hard to believe is the fact that it was a year ago now that we began to get pits in our stomachs that Main Idea and Camp Agawam may not be able to run in summer 2020. Sadly, with all the scenarios tested and considered our best and healthiest course was to suspend normal operations for the Summer.
What has transpired thereafter in the Agawam Community was remarkable. Virtual programming began to spring up while our campers, parents and alumni ramped up connections on social media to stay connected and keep their friendships strong and hopeful for meeting up at camp in ’21.
Recognizing the negative financial impact a lost summer would have on Agawam, people began to come forward with a flurry of donations that built an incredible bridge over the rough economic river Agawam needed to cross.
Without that support, Agawam would have survived as a result of conservative financial management through the years, by utilizing Preservation funds and cutting physical plant upkeep at Camp, but the damage would have taken nearly a decade to bounce back from.
Instead, “Chief” and Bill will share with you tonight news that Agawam is much stronger going into 2021 than we would have predicted just 6 months ago. Funds flowed from donated tuitions, money for seasonal summer staff who had lost their jobs because camp couldn’t open, PPP loans from the government, 100% Board of Directors donations and gifts from other generous folks who wanted to ensure Agawam weathered as best we could.
Simple thanks will never be enough to express the appreciation we have for everyone who pitched in to support Agawam this past year. Everyone connected to the inner workings of camp is deeply grateful. THANK YOU!
So now here we are in 2021 and want you to know that the Agawam Council Board of Directors is 100% behind “Chief” and his team restarting full and vibrant programming this summer.
“Chief” and his staff are working every day to adjust to the improving reality, the ever-changing regulations and always keeping in mind our mission to run top notch your development programming.
As a Board, we too have had to adjust to a virtual world. That’s been painful for us as we relish the chance to get together at least twice a year face to face at Agawam and in the Boston area for our regular meetings. Like many of you, we are missing out on direct contact with lifelong friendships we built in and around Agawam.
Despite that we have been busy. This past year we modernized our Board structure and updated our bylaws to better support an organization that is more than 35 years old now.
We worked with “Chief” to address concerns that have been expressed over the past 5 or more years about Council Fire. Recently “Chief” announced some changes that will ensure boys are getting the wonderful and intentional benefits of our weekly council fire ceremony, but also setting aside Native American cultural offenses. Agawam has always revered the people who inhabited Maine long before settlers from afar and the adjustments to Council Fire will better reflect that reverence.
I’ll step aside now and pass it to “Chief” and Bill for more exciting news about the summer to come.
“Chief” Erik Calhoun
Thanks very much “Admiral”. I appreciate it and just want to reiterate this is the second all community Town Hall Info Session that we’ve had. For the last one I was sitting in Mason Hall with beautiful Camp Agawam behind me. Now I’m in Portland, Maine, in my home office. It’s a bit of a different vibe from my perspective. To all the parents of current campers out there, we’ll continue our series of Town Halls as it relates to the summer. The purpose of this session is a larger scale look at the entire Agawam organization, how we stand and we are today. Within that context I will talk on some of the things that we’ll be doing to open up for the summer.
As I sit here in front of my computer, there is still a feeling of connection and I know that the number of people who signed up to be on this call is practically a full camp of boys. Oddly, in this year of physical isolation, it has also been a year of connection from an Agawam perspective. I’ve been blown away by the number of people who have reached out over that last year to offer support, guidance or even to ask how they can help. Because of the strength of this community, we are emerging from a challenging year in which we did not open for the summer. But we are poised for an amazing 2021 and beyond. Thank you in particular to everybody who reached out with encouraging letters, posts, emails; to all who participated in our virtual events; the parents who donated all or a part of their 2020 tuition or rolled over tuitions to 2021, to all the donors who supported the 2020 staff loyalty stipend, the Agawam Annual Appeal, and the Agawam My Agawam Campaign ad the 20920 Bridge Fund.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were getting ready to make the announcement that Agawam was not going to open. It probably took “Capt” and me 45 takes to get it right because I was either crying or his phone wasn’t working or I was blowing my lines—it was very personal to me. And at that time, one of my messages shared was not in the original script—that this is sad moment, but it’s not a sad story. I’m not sure I believed it at the time and was putting on a good face. I was bummed. Not opening was a blow to me. Up to that point I was extraordinarily hopeful that we would open. Yet here we are now, looking at 2021 in a position that is so much better than what I could have imagined. And a lot of that has to do with the strength of our community. There are other factors too, but that’s the main one.
Considering all that happened in the world, and considering that we didn’t open for a year, we are in a strong position in terms of our programs and our financials. While our economic position is strong, it was impacted by not opening in 2020. To better understand this, we’re going to have “Bos’n” Bill Auerswald, our treasurer give some perspective.
I do want to mention that Camp Agawam is an organization that is very much reliant on our dedicated and hardworking volunteer board, Agawam Council. None of these members signed up for what 2020 doled out, yet they stepped up and were champions during a very hard time. And for that I’m forever grateful to the Agawam Council directors, committee members and everybody who chipped in. One of those who chipped in “Bos’n” Auerswald, and I’ll pass this on to him.
“Bos’n” Bill Auerswald.
Thanks “Chief”. I promise to take less than 5 minutes to bore you all with numerical data on camp’s financial strength. From its inception, Agawam Council has always tried to be a good financial steward of camp’s many assets. Not just dollars and sense, but our phenomenal physical plant, amazing human resources and all of the committed alumni, campers and folks who have been through the Agawam program. We take very seriously our need to do that.
Coming into this unforeseen moment, we were well positioned to weather some rainy days. We’d never contemplated that we’d miss an entire summer’s worth of revenue and the loss to the organization of around $800K, But happily we were able to digest what that meant, how to see through it and how to sustain our plant, programming and staff through that moment. And frankly, the skies started to brighten for several reasons.
One was the initiative and the wherewithal of our donor community, all of whom said they understood this was an odd moment and we’re going to do a little bit extra than we did before. Many of these folks had already made big commitments to our capital campaign just a couple of years earlier, when times were perfect. To dig deeper in moments of difficulty was just phenomenal. Our $800K loss has been largely made up through this group’s donation of $250K to The Bridge Fund, the donations from our camper’s families, plus a couple of government programs that we believed as a board were designed to help organizations like ours absorb an unexpected blow from the pandemic. We will total out, after all is finalized, about $500K of government assistance against that $800K loss. That’s $100K from the CARES Act and the balance from two forgivable PPP loans, used to sustain our staff and some of our commitments that didn’t have resources to take care of them. Ultimately, we’ve had to devote about $100K of our reserves to meet the hole that the missed summer created, and really not much else.
Hopefully this coming summer will be robust and provide a full set of campers and refill our budget that we count on each year make all these numbers work. As “Admiral” said, we thought it might take 5 – 10 years to replenish the reserves we might have to tap; it turns out we’ll be back in good shape in 1-3 years.
I wanted to reassure everyone that Agawam is strong. The Agawam Council will open programming this year. It’s not about hitting a specific revenue number; frankly, it’s about making sure that it’s the best summer for everyone on Crescent Lake. Whether that’s our staff, campers, Main Idea families and campers—all of these folks will have everything they need to make it an amazing summer. With that, I’ll pass it back to “Chief” to talk about some of the details. Many thanks to everybody for their support with these challenges.
“Chief” Erik Calhoun
Thank you “Bos’n”. Before we go on, something quick. As a board, we’ve worked really hard on our communication plans, and how we communicate with people to make sure we’re reaching folks. So we have a poll associated with this Zoom, to learn how you actually heard about this event. It will help us improve our communications.
So I’ll review how were going to run camp and what’s going to happen. I’ll start with the most important message of all, and that is that Camp Agawam is essentially 2 programs. These programs are core to whom we are and what we do. One of those programs is the Main Idea and the other is the 7 week program. We are confident that both of these programs are going to run in 2021. This week was the nationwide ACA conference and this is the prevailing thinking in New England and especially in Maine- all of those older, established camps are planning on opening this summer. It’s critical that folks understand that 2021 is going to be a bridge summer. My expectation is that 2022 will look and feel like many summers past. 2021 is going to have some modifications, adaptations to some aspects that are a pivot to accommodate Covid 19. At this point it is a moving target, but I’ll run through what camp may look like this summer with the understanding that a lot of this may change and that our parents have been very patient, knowing that the meat of this will come out later this spring.
Philosophically, we are planning on opening camp as if were under current conditions and protocols, i.e. the vaccine and testing scenarios are as they are right now. I’m hopeful that when camp actually opens, it will be a much less restrictive environment, but it is better to over plan and scale back than try to ramp up later. Anyone who has been a cabin counselor at camp knows that you start with all your rules in place and then ease up as opposed to the opposite. This is a more serious version of that. Note that the Maine CDC guidelines for opening camps were last updated in June 2020 – but they understandably have a lot on their plates.
One thing that gives us a leg up on some other camps in opening is that I’m on the board of a small, private school in Portland called the Breakwater School. That school has run 5 days a week during this entire pandemic. I spoke to their Head of School, David Sullivan, about how they’ve been able to run their program with few issues and he said it was because a) they were incredibly lucky, and b) the community of faculty and students and parents have “bought in” and complied with the rules because they knew how important that school experience was. So when it’s time for us to open up, we will rely on the strength of our staff, campers and parents to follow the guidelines, some of which will occur even before they step on campus.
What are the camp protocols? Before people arrive, some behavior modification will be expected. Quarantines perhaps, but some campers may not have enough time between the end of school and the beginning of camp. Likely, an expectation to not attend parties, go to concerts—anything that would put them among a high concentration of people– 7-10 days before camp. We’ll request each camper get a PCR test 3-5 days before arrival at camp. Upon arrival, likely we’d require a rapid antigen test and 5 days into camp, we’d perform another PCR test.
Organization at camp
Most Americans live in a household without wearing masks. Agawam’s equivalent this summer will be the cabin group. A cluster of 2 cabins will be considered a “family group”, and they will not have to be masked when they are with each other. Then there is a larger group, called a “cohort group”. We’ll have three cohort groups in camp (lower, middle and upper campus). Some of our interactions will be dictated by the State of Maine. Within a cohort group, people may be wearing masks around one another inside or outside, although that could change to no masks after the 5 day PCR test. The purpose for organizing this way is for contact tracing. If we have a positive test or someone showing symptoms, we can isolate a small group of campers as opposed to a large group and it enables us to keep camp open.
We’ll run Main Idea a bit differently because it is only a week long. We won’t have a chance to open things up. One advantage of Main Idea is that every camper is from Maine, where there is low incidence of Covid-19.
In our program, we have bottlenecks—spots where people gather together en masse. Vespers, Rainy Day activities, dining, etc. Within cabins we can maintain the 6 foot spacing because boys sleep head to toe, so no changes there. Waysides- we can split the middle and upper waysides in half and we’ll create outdoor troughs for hand washing and tooth brushing. The trough system has been used at Camp Timanous for years. Large group gatherings- we’ll do outside (Vespers, award ceremonies). Note that we are anticipating a summer with no parent visitors. That could change but this is the expectation. No parents gives us schedule flexibility in case of bad weather- we can move things around to another day of the week. For rainy days, we can have 3 cohorts in 3 different places- Governor Hall, Mason Hall and Lower Mason Hall. Dining was our biggest concern. Mason Hall is large and beautiful, but it is full. We thought initially that we might have to use 3 different dining locations, but we recently completed the Old Bubbler Porch project, an expansion of the porch outside the dining room. We also added a roof over it, creating a dining and meeting space. That’s a space we can use for years to come. Dining will be done by cabin group, buffet style. No camper waiters. We feel good about our plan with bottlenecks.
We have the new infirmary and the old infirmary available. Normally we have 2 full time nurses plus a day-off nurse. This year we’ve hired 4 nurses. This does create a budget issue, but it’s important that we do this. In a worst case scenario such as an outbreak, we’d need all 4 nurses. I hope they’ll be bored! We’ll also set up a tent next to the infirmary, which will act as a triage space. As the triage space is not expected to be needed beyond this summer, we did not build a permanent structure.
We all know how essential the staff is to running the summer at camp. Naturally, at this time of year, like all camps, we’re usually scrambling for that final counselor or two to complete the staff- a trip director, waterfront director, etc. At this point, all of our key positions are filled for this summer. I feel really good about this. We’ve been very up-front with the seasonal staff—that they may not be able to leave our campus this summer. Days Off and Nights Out may have to happen on campus. We’re working hard to accommodate this. Possibly with vaccinations we can loosen it up. But everyone has committed to the summer knowing this.
We are planning for all activities to run. Optionals may be a little different. What won’t happen this summer, as of now, is intercamp activities. Dances, sporting events, etc. won’t happen unless the guidelines change. We’ll still do Ag-Wam, overnight trips (if it provides some seclusion, meaning that Speckled Mountain- and the Cold River Campground- or staying in huts on Mt. Washington are out). We are putting alternatives in place.
There are a lot more details to come. We’ll continue to update everyone, and I encourage anyone to call or email me if you want additional info.
Note that we have a full camp for this summer. We’re also telling our families that there is a full, no-questions-asked refund policy- even right up to the last minute. Could be that you’re coming from another country and there is a restriction or maybe you’re just not comfortable with how this summer’s program is laid out. Because we don’t know all the specifics, offering this flexibility is the right thing to do, and it’s great to have the full board’s support on this.
Finally, I want to address the changes to the Council Fire. I’ve had some question sent my way, so it’s important to address it. Two years ago I presented to the Agawam Council the concept of removing Native American aspects from our Council Fire. We established a sub committee made up of a nice variety of generational board members. That subcommittee looked into the history and all aspects of this. Later, I put forth to the board a recommendation about removing those elements of Native American aspects and to modify our ceremony and it was approved unanimously.
First, this is something that I’ve been living with for the last couple of years and for me personally, it’s important for me to allow others to process this. For many of you, this is the first time you’ve heard about it. Council Fire is something that a lot of folks feel very strongly about. A lot of nostalgia. My father was a camper and counselor in the 50s and 60s. I was a camper and counselor in the 80s, 90s and 00s. My son is currently a camper. I live Agawam every day-our mission, our traditions and the people are very, very dear to me. When I was lucky enough to get the best job in the world as Director of Camp Agawam, I saw one of the critical aspects of what I was to do was to be the guardian of who Agawam is and our traditions. And I still see that. I understand change can be difficult and slow in coming, but I can assure you that this as a correct decision.
I’ve stood the center of the council ring for 7 Saturdays since 2009. I feel that I understand, as well as anybody, how powerful that ceremony is. I’ll also tell you that most of that power is derived from buy-in from our community. They key to the summer of 2021 is to maintain that buy-in. We’ll no longer dress like Indians, but Council will still be reverent. There will be 4 bands, with elected camper leaders, marching into the ring to the sound of a drum. Marching honors will be awarded, the fire will light, there will be challenges, nature reports, trip reports, Ranger Trail awards, charades, and the ceremony will end with the awarding of Katiaki. Some campers will leave happily with candles in hand, others will not. It will look a bit different, but it will effectively be the same event with the same reverence. To me, and I had this conversation with both “Chief” Nelson and Dave Mason, one of the most powerful moments in which you feel most connected to camp is when it’s dark at Council Fire, and you’re in the midst of the entire camp. You get a feeling of timelessness. In 2021, I promise that it will feel the same. There will be adaptations, and we need to get the 15 and 16 year old boys to buy in along with the staff. But the power of those people sitting ono those benches looking at the fire—that will feel the same.
I realize that not everyone will agree with this decision. I’ve had an overwhelming amount of support from the Agawam Community along with some negative feedback. And I am happy to discuss with anyone. Change can be hard, but this is the right step going forward. Council will remain meaningful.
Questions and Answers
Q: What is the status of volunteers for Main Idea ?
A (“Chief”): I should have touched on that as it is in my notes. It is likely that we will NOT have volunteers this year. It’s a wait and see as it could change. If the science tells us that someone who is fully vaccinated is unlikely to be a carrier of Covid and can’t pass it on person-to-person, that would be a big game changer to bringing in volunteers. So, as of now, we’re planning on no volunteers.
Q: What about parent visitation?
A (“Chief”): I mentioned it before, but in all likelihood, we are not going to have parent visitation. It’s too challenging. What we are working hard on is a better communication plan for families over the summer. For example, I’ll probably be doing a weekly zoom call with parents, and early on, a video introduction of our staff. Still working on handling of phone calls between parents and campers as there are sanitization issues that must be addressed.
Q: Will vaccinations be required for staff?
A (“Chief”): Right now, vaccinations are administered state by state. And our staff comes from a number of states. It’s challenging to regulate. I believe we are not allowed to tell our staff members that they must be vaccinated. In Maine, teachers are considered essential workers. We will likely send letters to staff indicating they’ll be working with youth this summer, and hopefully that will give them the ability to get a vaccine shot in their state. It’s a goal of ours to get the full staff vaccinated, but not a requirement. And Maine has been clear so far that they’re not going to vaccinate people from out of state.
Q: Can you give us some more background on how the decision was made to remove Native American aspects from Council?
A (“Chief”): First of all, anyone that is interested can contact me- email, text, whatever. I have a document that I presented to the board that does a deep dive into the history of the Native American aspects of Camp Agawam. I think for a lot of folks, particularly those who are nostalgic about that, the view is that we’re actually honoring Native Americans with what we do in Council. That’s always been our intent. I will say that we’re not necessarily apologizing for what we’ve done in the past. We’re not taking down photographs in the office and we’re not erasing our history—just changing how we move forward. Ultimately, teaching Native American history in Council is perfectly appropriate and something we’ll continue to do. I tell stories that are rooted in history and that’s important. Certain Native American words are not inappropriate. The issue is pretending we’re Native American and dressing like Native Americans. That is the core issue that we’re going to change. We had no outcry or expose in the newspaper, but this was clearly the right thing to do. In the document to the board, I explain the Native American aspects of Council Fire are the “frame” to Council, but it is not the “core” of Council. So we’re changing the way we frame the ceremony, but not changing its core. I understand that I won’t change any minds with my explanation, and I’m happy to talk offline and share documentation and the information regarding this.
(“Admiral” Wilson): I would just add that the board spent a lot of time deliberating with Chief on this. And to clarify, there were some people who were offended, Native Americans and those with Native American family lineage who felt we were imitating a culture that we respected but didn’t completely understand, and didn’t have a right to take from. While not the driving force, this did add to the conversation for a couple of years. As stated, the board is completely behind Chief and the process.
(“Chief”): Thank you Admiral. You’re absolutely right, we did have a couple of folks who were offended. But the point is that we were not reactionary, it was a measured and studied action.
Q: Will we require masks in Council?
A (“Chief”): The way the rules are now, cohort groups will not be together. They must be distanced. Council in 2021, unless really good stuff happens, is going to be a bit tricky. We could do what we did for the Council Fire at the 100th Reunion, when we held it on Forbes Field. That’s an option. And remember that we’re basing our plans on current conditions. And in that case, boys will be masked with groups other than their cabin. My hope is that will not have to be the case, but that’s how we’re playing it for now.
Q: What is the plan for introducing the changes to Council to the campers and staff?
A (“Chief”): Staff and campers have already received information about this and we’ll do a couple of additional things. During staff training we’re going to sit down and talk about the changes at length. Really, the introduction to campers will occur when they arrive. Every summer I sit with the unit heads and the senior boys and talk to them because they are central in making this happen. Then we’re likely to sit with the entire camp and talk it over.
Q: What is the status of the new office?
A (“Chief”): As soon as the last camper leaves Agawam in 2021, we’ll be taking everything out of the current office in order to build the new office. We’re very excited about it. It’ll be in the same location, a little bit higher profile but Billy Symonds (our builder), has a great sense of what fits at Agawam aesthetically. The original plan was to build it last summer, but given the circumstances we put it off a year.
(Wilson): This is the fulfillment of the final part of infrastructure changes that were a part of the Agawam My Agawam Campaign. There are also Campership and Staff related elements. Four years ago we put in a new infirmary, and this is the last piece for those who generously supported that campaign.
Q: What is the latest on international campers, staff and those requiring a J-1 Visa?
A (“Chief”): The companies that orchestrate the J1 visas are very hopeful that it will happen. We have a few international staff we’re planning on bringing in—fewer than maybe in a typical year. As for international campers, those currently signed up are coming from Canada and the Dominican Republic. Getting them here may not be as big an issue as them getting home. But if we have to use quarantines, we can do that. As long as they’re conforming to expectations, we should be OK. There are some camps that are 40-50% international—so they may have a different sense.
Q: Will Korona be run?
A (“Chief”): Yes- Korona will be run. As we have no intercamp competitions, maybe we’ll do Super-Korona or multiple Koronas.
“Chief”: I’m sure there are more questions out there, whether about Council Fire of other questions about this summer. For parents, we’ll have more of these information sessions, but I encourage everyone to please reach out. I will happily get back to you.
“Admiral” Wilson: Not much more to add except thanks to everyone. One thing that came to mind listening to “Chief” is the incredible amount of detail and what it’s going to take to open up camp. I see all kinds of folks that I spent time with at camp and I think—wasn’t it simple when all we had to do was change our socks and take a soap dip? I t appears those days are long gone.
And to “Chief”- a shout out to you and your leadership staff for the incredible amount of detail work you’ve done in running camp in this kind of environment. It was a tough, bitter pill to swallow last year. We couldn’t run camp, but you’ve used the time wisely, with your staff, to prep for the next phase of Agawam. I wish you the best of luck for a successful camp season. It will be different, but I’m sure it will be great. And I want to thank everyone on this call for all they’ve done to help bridge us over. We are so grateful to everyone. We look forward to seeing you next time, in person, perhaps at our next 5 year reunion.
Many thanks and have a good evening.