by Katherine Dayton, Director, VISIONS Service Adventures
There is no shortage of options when it comes to choosing a summer program for your child. There are sleep away camps, teen tours, international programs, and the list goes on. You can easily get lost in a sea of alluring catalogs promising life-changing summers.
But it’s important to understand that not all summer programs are created equal.
When it comes to experiential and travel based summer programs, there are no set regulations for safety protocols and quality, among other factors. And when you’re considering sending your child off to experience a different landscape and culture, often on a different continent, it’s imperative to do some research on your own.
After you’ve narrowed down your search to programs that are aligned with your child’s interests, whether it’s academics, community service work, or sports, here is a checklist of the top five questions to ask:
- What’s the leader ratio? Safety, security, and supervision directly corresponds to the number of leaders and the quality of the leaders on any summer program. For travel programs, a one to six leader to student ratio should generally be the minimum. Classroom-based programs may have fewer leaders per participant, which can be acceptable because kids tend to stay on campuses and the days are classroom-based. Outdoor programs working with youth at risk often have the best leader ratios due the intense emotional work coupled with remote settings; one to three or four is standard.
- What’s the straight answer? When you are addressing the leader ratio question above, and others down the list, make sure you’re getting the real answer instead of a glossed over one. For instance, some organizations may describe a leader ratio as, “One to six, company-wide,” meaning that office personnel are being included when referring to the supervision of kids in the field. This is not a straightforward answer, and it can be a red flag. If they aren’t being up front about this basic safety precaution, how do you know what you’re in store for?
- How many years in operation? Has the organization been running programs for at least 10 years? If less, do leaders and administrators have prior related experience of taking young people overseas? Can they prove it? Youth summer programs are complex situations, and a proven work history can be a sign that they have the experience under their belts to perform accordingly. Otherwise, they would be out of business by now.
- Do they have liability insurance? There is no governing body that sets regulations for organizations taking young people overseas. One way to assess whether an organization is grounded and running professionally is to ask whether they carry liability insurance. Coverage in the $1 million-plus is standard for most established organizations. Liability insurance doesn’t directly relate to the quality of a program, but it can be an indicator of how established and how far along an organization is in implementing systems and procedures.
- Can I check references & reviews? It’s time to do some sleuthing! Ask the organization for references of alumni participants and parents, and give the references a call or send them an email to ask about their experiences. If a company doesn’t have a reference list to provide? Red flag. Also, perform online searches for review sites (simply Google “reviews & company name) and read up.
Visions Service Adventures runs international community service programs for middle school and high school aged kids.