My STEP project involved me taking a five-week Program internship at Camp Sunshine in Casco, Maine. Camp Sunshine is a non-profit camp for terminally ill kids and their families. During each week of my internship, my tasks changed allowing me to serve in differing capacities, working with staff members to execute all of the camp’s programs.
I experienced both professional and personal growth while completing my STEP Signature Project. Professionally speaking, I learned the value and power of having a strong volunteer force. Going into this internship I had hoped to learn more about the inner-workings of non-profit organizations but this realization really brought to the forefront how important it is to have a mission that people can identify with and also to make sure to live by the mission. My original assumption was that while many of the volunteers would be dedicated, it couldn’t be that all would be so invested, especially if they were coming with school groups or completing service hours, but I was happily incorrect; all of the volunteers I came in contact with were there for the right reasons. Additionally, my view on the connections and networks that nonprofits create was changed. Having worked for smaller nonprofits in the past, I had seen them partner with smaller organizations, but never anything that truly seemed to have impact. Camp Sunshine’s partnership with nation-wide organizations has really seemed to make an impact and viewing this was again, a testament to how enticing it’s mission was.
I can also say that I personally benefitted from my internship at Camp Sunshine. Having had to have met and work with a whole new group of volunteers each week strengthened my people skills and accelerated my ability to find common ground while also establishing either a volunteer or authoritative position among volunteers. In being able to meet new campers each week it taught me to keep and open mind and be ready to hear their stories and connect with them on a personal level In addition, just the mere fact that I was 780 miles from home also brought out a trait of resilience in me that I had never really noticed before. When faced with challenges and times when I felt overwhelmed, instead of being overwhelmed and not being able to give the programming 100%, I was able to relate with my roommates and their workloads and we would work together to keep each other motivated on long days, knowing that the work was worthwhile.
Relating to my professional growth, there are a couple instances/examples that led me come to two conclusions regarding the impact of volunteers and the importance of making markets work.
As far as volunteers go, I had both the chance to work with other volunteers as an equal and also to manage a group of sixteen other volunteers. In both my interactions, it was easy to see how much heart the people had. Many were so willing to open up and share their experiences and were also there 100% for the kids. As I had mentioned, I was leery when school groups came in to volunteer. I originally thought, “How can every single one of these kids want to be here,” but in seeing them interacting with campers, my mind was changed. Instead of congregating with each other and not focusing on the kids, their connections to each other only enhanced the experience. They were able to collaborate and keep morale high especially on long days. Time and time again I observed common ground being helpful.
The power of volunteers really stood out to me though when myself, along with other interns were briefed on what Camp Sunshine is calling, the Wishboat Crew Challenge. Wishboats are a tradition at Camp Sunshine and are boats the campers create that hold a candle. At a ceremony on the last evening of camp, the campers gather around a pond, float their boats, sing the camp song, and then make a wish for their future as they blow out the candle. The Wishboat Crew Challenge is essentially Camp Sunshine’s wish. The challenge is an initiative that involves volunteers taking pledges to raise $2,500 (the cost of sending one family to camp). Their goal is to hold a completely volunteer funded session ($100,000) in 2017. When they were first explaining this to us I was thinking that they just wanted more volunteers to also be raising funds, but once they explained the larger initiative I was amazed. The fact that they are predicting that they can raise the money and hold a completely volunteer funded camp session in less than a year really spoke volumes to the engagement of their already dedicated volunteer base. When speaking to the executive director I realized the efforts that they put in recruiting new volunteers but also in volunteer retention-two things that I think are really working to their advantage.
In terms of making markets work, I was surprised of the national partnerships that the camp has, given that I had never heard of the camp prior to my internship. Many nonprofits are criticized for having overhead costs but in turn having such large philanthropy events. In Camp Sunshine’s case, these large events are where a good portion of their funding for the year is brought in. On National Flip-Flop Day people can go to Tropical Smoothie Cafes and get free smoothies if they wear flip flops but also donate to camp. The camp also has connections with LLBean, local businesses, Point Sebago (a neighboring camping resort), and also holds an event at an airplane hangar where people buy tickets to be entered in a raffle to win a free trip to New York. So while they have smaller, more local connections, they are also expanding their horizons to a national level, increasing visibility, and in turn increasing donations that allow the camp to run smoothly.
Personally speaking, as I mentioned, I was able to see a sort of resilience in myself that I had never seen before. I remember towards the end of camp, there was one day where my co-lead was unable to help with some portion of the day, and so I was in charge of thirty campers and fifteen volunteers. It was a particularly long day and I had begun to feel like I was getting sick so overall it was a less than ideal day. If I had had a choice I would have left and went to take a nap and decompress but because so many people were relying on me and I didn’t have a choice to leave, I had to stay and power through the day. It ended up being a great day because my volunteers helped keep up energy, but afterwards I realized that I had overcome a “throw in the towel” attitude. In addition, I think just living on my own 780 miles from home created independence in me that I had not had before. Yes, I go to school two and a half hours from home, but I had never been anywhere for an extended period of time, where I couldn’t see my family, and be able to interact with my friends. This pushed me out of my comfort zone but ended in me creating what I think will be lasting relationships. I was also able to learn how to co-collaborate and lead with one person, which is something that I had not had experience with before.
These professional and personal developments are significant in my life because they relate to both my intended career field and also my character.
I hope to work in a nonprofit agency some day so being able to have worked with managing volunteers and seeing what a difference a dedicated volunteer force can do was beneficial. I now have learned tools to keep volunteers engaged and also how to recruit volunteers for events. I have also learned the power of utilizing your network and also the benefit of reaching out to not only other nonprofits, but other businesses as well. In additional, when interviewing my boss, the executive director, I was able to learn more about the composition of an efficiently working board, and that was information that I can transfer to a career in the nonprofit sector.
Personally, I think that my perspective on how to overcome challenges has changed due to some of the independence that I gained. This perspective can also overlap with my professional growth, as overcoming challenges is part of any job. Learning how to co-collaborate and find common ground to relate to a population that I am serving will also be skills that I take with me after this experience.
Overall, I believe that my STEP internship was a fulfilling and beneficial project. I was able to develop both professionally in my understanding of the day-to-day operations within a nonprofit and also personally, in my mindset when facing challenges.