As the school year drew to a close last year, my 11-year-old daughter decided to turn part of a long summer into a profitmaking venture. When I casually mentioned to her that when I was her age I ran a backyard camp for preschool-age children, she decided to follow suit. I knew that my daughter was mature and ambitious, but I couldn't have predicted the incredible success of her first entrepreneurial initiative (second, actually, after her lemonade stands).
Alyson prepared for the launching of the Neighborhood Kids Camp, as she called it, in the spring, about two months before school ended, by developing an extensive brochure and marketing it to parents of the 3-to-5-year-old set. She found several campers through her 5-year-old sister, who has lots of friends. As the parents began to respond, Alyson kept a detailed log of which children would be attending on which days. The camp was to be held from 9 a.m. until noon on weekdays for two weeks. On Mondays and Fridays, the children brought their lunch and stayed until 12:30.
Alyson spent hours developing activity charts and a daily schedule and testing craft projects. She cleaned out the garage to make room for her supplies and turned the back yard into a huge playground, using a tarp to create a shaded area where she read stories to the children.
Like any business venture, hers needed capital, for snacks and supplies. I loaned her the $54 she needed to buy arts-and-crafts materials, as well as fun sprinklers and a water slide. She paid me back as soon as she received the first check from a parent.
Staffing was a complicated matter. Since none of her friends could commit to the entire two-week period (they had their own camps to attend), Alyson developed a roster of different assistants for each day, depending on the number of children who would be attending. She split the profits with her co-workers based on the number of hours worked.
This was a sophisticated endeavor, and Alyson took it seriously, even developing her own information sheets for parents, which listed emergency numbers and children's allergies.
The camp taught Alyson and her friends important lessons about responsibility and commitment. Though they were often tired in the morning and sometimes wished they could sleep late, they realized they had a job to do. Also, one of the conditions of hosting the camp at my house was that the girls had to leave the back yard and basement, where the camp was held, as spotless as they found it. Twice they left a mess. I called the parents of Alyson's friends and the kids returned to clean up.
The camp opened Alyson's eyes to the labors of caring for young children. One day she rushed into the house, looking desperately for more freeze pop treats. When I asked her whether we had enough, she said: "Yes, but they all want blue! What difference does it make -- they all taste the same!" I smiled to myself and enjoyed seeing her walk in my shoes.
I made sure I was home during the camp in case an emergency arose. And of course one did, teaching the girls how to respond in a crisis. One day Alyson decided to have the kids eat lunch on our deck, where bees were seduced by the sweet apple juice and fruit. One child was stung. Alyson quickly grabbed her Red Cross baby-sitting handbook. Her friend promptly applied ice to the affected area, and comforted the crying child until his mother came to retrieve him.
The camp was considered a resounding success by campers and parents alike. One mother said her child, who before Alyson's camp never separated from her without tears, couldn't wait to get to camp every morning. Others were touched by the nostalgia of a 1960s-style camp where the kids waded in the backyard pool and played games like "What Time Is It, Mr. Fox?"
At first Alyson had only a handful of campers, but by the second week, word-of-mouth brought as many as 10 a day. As at a preschool, a caravan of minivans would pull up in our driveway promptly at 9 and return three hours later.
The camp netted a profit of $400 for the two weeks. Alyson, who earned half of that, used her math and record-keeping skills to keep track of the cash flow. But in addition to making money, she learned valuable lessons. She was forced to interact with adults. And when Alyson got sick on the last day of camp, her friends, who had shied away from talking to parents, reluctantly took over that job and gained confidence in the process.
In an era when kids are often focused on participating in their own activities, or routinely complain of boredom during rare moments of downtime, I was impressed with Alyson's camp endeavor. It showed me the value of giving young people plenty of responsibility and demonstrated the incredible capabilities of kids who are creative and determined to succeed.
As for Alyson, she was so excited by the experience that she's already planning this year's camp. She designed a summer 2003 camp brochure with photographs she took of the kids having fun in the backyard pool. And because her sister's friends may be too old to attend, Alyson's canvassing the neighborhood for pint-size prospective campers. She will be running the camp for an extra week this summer, provided she can spend the next week sleeping late to recover from her hard work.