Please Note In our dialogue with parents, families and even kids we profoundly appreciate the value of candor and thoughtfulness. Our musings are meant to evoke healthy discourse—going beyond simply an organization that runs camps. We want to cultivate deeper relationships by exploring the depth and power of balance—a dynamic art required for our specific work of education and mentoring. Hopefully through reflecting all the wonderful challenges we face in this journey called life (and Trackers), we cultivate a deeper appreciation for one another.
What do I mean by failure? Failure doesn’t mean bad. It means you learned more while you strove for an epic goal that you did not reach.
I began teaching outdoor education 22 years ago. At the age of 17 I started down this path because I loved being outside in the wilds. I also sought community. I desperately wanted the two to connect: to be part of a family of people who love nature.
Versions of this came and went. I noticed the primary challenge to building a long-lasting community related to our mutual ability to make a living. Ten years ago I created Trackers with the goal of providing my friends with a healthy and shared livelihood.
We also hoped to make outdoor education better. We wanted the kids, adults, and families who joined us to feel part of this same community connected to the wilds. We saw three parts to this ecology: staff, students, and nature. From this, I realized I needed to give people real jobs to develop such stability.
And we – I – failed.
The first challenge? Camps and outdoor education remain seasonal. We have many wonderful people working with us each summer. They feel excited to join our organization and our efforts to offer kids fantastic camps (something we actually have accomplished). Yet for what we ask people to give, I know these jobs should pay more. Finally, after a summer of incredibly hard work, there remains only a handful of year-round positions.
Traditionally camp counselors across the industry might earn only $30-$50 a day (due to a legal exception for camp programs that permit them to pay below minimum wage). Trackers does not do this. We pay a full wage… and still recognize it must be more. While we want Trackers programs to be accessible for everyone, at the same time we have to compete with other organizations that pay their people far less.
This is not a complaint. As a founder of Trackers, this remains my responsibility.
The second challenge? To improve programs and secure our future, we must purchase a building. To reduce our dependence and impact on public parks, we need to acquire land where kids can build fires, shelters, and shoot arrows without getting in trouble. Because we commit ourselves to providing the safest programs, we invested in the safest transportation methods possible. All these intensive and sometimes unique expenses come together to create the Trackers camps we all love.
The third challenge? We tried raising tuition fees this year, which helped. But it also understandably frustrated many parents. I empathize, when I was a kid, my parents couldn’t afford to send me to any camp, let alone one like Trackers.
There’s never a finished answer, only the ongoing work and wonder of balance.
In our ten year history we’ve had incredible folks get frustrated; sometimes become disappointed and burnt out with their work. Even beyond Trackers, the entire outdoor education industry is not necessarily a sustainable livelihood. Still, many motor on, seeing slow but sure progress while working thoughtfully for change. Yet each person, no matter what their hopes, fears or tenure with Trackers, has courageously dug into their innermost awesome to make all of it a beautiful experience for the kids and adults we serve.
This summer I took a step back to teach one group of kids, write books that help train our staff, and do my best to see things from a different perspective.
During this time I asked myself: if my original goal was resilient connections for a community supported by a strong livelihood, have I failed? The honest answer is yes. But I have learned a lot. And if we never try, we never learn, right? I actually feel excited that I don’t know exactly what we need to do next.
In reading this, someone might mistake that I see no value in what we created. On the contrary, the actual result often proves greater and more fantastic than I ever expected.
After my first draft of this blog I spent the afternoon with two very important people. Sarah and Romain have taught at Trackers for many years, quickly rising through its ranks—they are 22 and 23 years respectively. I talked with them about my concerns and the content of this blog. We discussed their goals for programs, community and healthy livelihood. I realized that Tony Deis (that’s me) around their same age may not have been ready to teach with Trackers. These two phenomenal individuals proved fundamentally more thoughtful at an earlier time in their life than I ever was. Trackers may well have contributed to that, but more importantly these are the great people who make Trackers what it is.
After that I continued my evening walk, wandering back to our new Scout Pit (do we call it that anymore?). There I found a group of staff playing tabletop games. They expressed to me how grateful they were to share the space and simply play together for an evening. I felt even more confused but also happy. I remembered then, I never set out to solve any of these problems on my own. My entire goal was to find people who will work together with me to solve these challenges—friends to share the journey.
Where do we go from here? After ten years I learned individuals alone don’t solve problems. Friends and community can. I deeply appreciate being surrounded by people who I have faith can contribute diversity and new perspectives. Not just our staff, but our parents, our kids and even the stories of nature that we discover while spending time together in the wilds and lands we love.
I started out saying failure does not mean bad, but that you learned. It also means you better know how to move forward. Failure is a portal where your dream finds its way into reality—imperfect, resilient in unexpected ways, and far more real.
And yes, in spite of this transparent conversation of our challenges, Trackers is still going strong and anticipating a great future! Thank you everyone for listening and offering your support.