"The Dad's Club Camp Out is a huge success at our school, and every year parents and students can't wait for it!" says Tina Palutis. "It's a big undertaking and requires a lot of planning, volunteers, and time, but it is the most rewarding activity I think we offer."
As a parent liaison at Mableton (Georgia) Elementary School, Palutis helped to organize the Dad's Club Camp Out as a means to lure more fathers to become involved in the school. Many of the students' fathers are the primary breadwinners of their families, with education predominantly left in the hands of mothers.
"Our hope was to create an activity that would bring dads or other male role models back into the school to bond with their children and with other fathers and grandfathers," recalls Palutis. "I believe that the response to this event has been so great because families want to feel invited into the school. This is not just another event. It's really a different idea to have families pitch a tent and camp out on school grounds. It's involvement for the entire family."
One Friday night in October, the students and their families pitch tents in an open field near the school. There is a $5 fee for each campsite. The evening includes snacks of popcorn, cotton candy, and candy apples, and there are activities to occupy the kids -- pumpkin carving, movie showings in the media center, and play on a "Jumpy Jump."
"The community involvement has really impressed me," Palutis reports. "As a Title I school, we could not afford to make this event so successful and activity-filled without the help of the community, local businesses and churches, and of course our PTA. They all provide us with donations such as the popcorn machines, firewood, live music, bales of hay -- the list goes on. The most amazing part is that each year the event continues to grow."
There is much to do behind the scenes to make the camp out an evening to remember. Palutis and other organizers plan ahead and start acquiring donations from the first day of school. Many volunteers and certified staff members spend the night along with the campers. Custodians make plans to set up and take down equipment for the evening, and a portion of the building remains unlocked to allow access to restrooms.
"We invite the fire department to bring trucks, and we also check with fire fighters beforehand about outdoor fire safety laws," recounts Palutis. "We plan chicken biscuit breakfasts for the morning with Chick-fil-A (our partner in education), and we invite the community librarian to come and tell stories around the fire. Details are important."
The Mableton Elementary PTA has assumed an instrumental role in the camp out over time and now pairs the event with its own annual fall festival. Parents and children can have fun all afternoon at the festival and then make camp for the night.
"I really can't say that there has been one moment that made me realize this was a successful event, more like a hundred moments -- parents telling me how much they love the camp out, watching them interact with their children as we make s'mores or sit around the bonfire, the children's smiles and hugs of appreciation, the community response. This event was a success waiting to happen," Palutis observed.
In addition to the camp out, the school holds monthly Dad's Club meetings in which the children bring their male role models and discuss their feelings and expectations. The Dad's Club opens doors to other school activities that these fathers and others can join. The camp out, however, remains the signature "guy" event that draws a crowd.
"We ask dads to bring a book with them to read with their children for Reading Beneath the Stars time before bed," Palutis shared. "It's an added educational/bonding experience that I believe benefits everyone."