Beyond the Great Outdoors: Mentorship and Growth at Mountain Lake Campground and Cabins

April 4, 2024

In high school, Susan James’s peers voted her “Most Likely to Work Outdoors”—a title that prophesied her future with remarkable accuracy. Today, she embodies that prediction as the heart and soul behind Mountain Lake Campground and Cabins in Summersville, West Virginia.

But it’s not just the great outdoors that captures Susan’s heart; she has also made it her mission to mentor the next generation. At Mountain Lake, Susan has found a way to blend her two passions together so well that if her classmates could see her now they’d insist on granting her one more title: Most Likely to Make a Difference.

A New Chapter Begins

Nearly 20 years ago, Susan and her husband embarked on a journey that changed her family’s life. They took their first steps into the campground industry as owners and operators—a decision they don’t regret. 

“My kids have grown up in this business,” Susan shared. “They were in second and third grades when we started this, but it’s been great. Now both my children work here, with my son managing the outside, and my daughter recently started helping me in the office.”

While she loves that the campground has become a family affair, Susan admits it wasn’t easy at first. Previously, she’d managed apartment rentals and her husband worked in manufacturing. Running a campground was uncharted territory for both of them.

“That first year my head was swimming with information,” Susan said with a chuckle. “I found out about campground school and immediately enrolled. I actually went all in and joined the 20 Group, which I would highly recommend. It helped me a lot, and I made some lifelong friends there.”

In addition, Susan began to educate herself regarding camping trends and watched what other campgrounds in her area were doing. She joined the Summersville Convention and Visitors Bureau so she could stay in the loop and see what people were looking for when they visited her area. 

Armed with an entirely new skill set, Susan opened the gates to Mountain Lake. As with most new business ventures, she had her share of hurdles to deal with. But one issue in particular kept popping up—until Susan found a way to overcome it in the most beautiful way possible.

Building a Team

“When you’re a seasonal business, staffing is a big obstacle at times,” Susan confessed. “But I have a passion for working with young people, so I decided to go into the schools and the Vo-Tech programs to set up interviews with the students there.”

Her plan? Actively recruit the youth in her town and train them to be an integral part of the park. It sounds like a huge undertaking, but Susan sees it as an investment in her park and in the youth of her community. She doesn’t just provide jobs; she nurtures potential. 

“We employ a lot of kids who’ve never worked before,” Susan said. “I love seeing all their personalities and determining where they will fit in. Some are so outgoing while some are so shy. If they’re really shy I’ll let them work in the ice cream shop making cookies or waffle cones.”

She doesn’t leave them there, though. Once those shy students gain a bit of confidence, Susan eases them into more public-facing responsibilities, patiently teaching them to talk with customers and letting them flourish at their own pace.

The supportive, encouraging atmosphere Susan has created is palpable. Dinners and ice cream socials are not merely times to enjoy good food, but milestones, celebrating the growth and contributions of each young worker. Her efforts have paid off. More times than not, young people who join Susan’s team at 15 come back every summer, with many of them returning to work throughout their college years.

“I always wanted a big family, but I only had 2 kids,” Susan disclosed. “Now I know why. It’s so I’d have room for all the kids I’ve employed over the years.”

Reflecting on the journey, Susan’s pride in these relationships is evident—her dream of a big family materialized, just in a different way. Now her daughter, Abigail, is carrying forward her mother’s legacy as she joins her mother in recruiting and mentoring the next generation, maintaining the familial ethos that defines their operation.

Creating Lasting Bonds

Susan’s experience offers invaluable insight for anyone looking to employ summer workers. So she shares a few suggestions on how to create and maintain an environment that makes student workers want to return year after year:

  • Create a nurturing environment: Let your workplace be a space where young people can explore their interests and talents. “In the ice cream shop, we let them get creative and come up with special desserts for our themed weekends,” Susan explained. “They like the flexibility and being able to contribute to the business in new and fun ways.”
  • Invest in personal growth: Encourage young people to take on new challenges and responsibilities, supporting them through their successes and coaching them through the areas where they need to improve.
  • Foster a sense of community: Regular gatherings and team-building activities can strengthen bonds and boost morale. “We take time to have fun together,” Susan said. “We cook lunch for the staff and create a fun place for them. They seem to thrive because of it.”
  • Engage with local schools: Building relationships with educational institutions can be a reliable source for workers who could potentially hang around for a while. Plus, you’re building community connections that can be truly beneficial in the long run.

The Lasting Impact of Mentorship 

Susan’s purpose is clear: the impact of investing in youth goes beyond the confines of a summer job. It’s about shaping futures and enriching lives—both theirs and hers.

“The kids will message me when they go to college, and they get another job,” Susan shared. “They’ll say, ‘Thank you for teaching me how to clean. I just got rewarded because of how well I’m doing.’ That is rewarding to me, too. It’s just amazing.”

So Susan has lived up to her high school superlative and then some. Through her dedication, Mountain Lake Campground and Cabins has become more than a camping destination; it’s a launching pad for the next generation’s leaders and caretakers of the great outdoors. 

That’s a mission the CampLife team can wholeheartedly get behind. When your reservation system has the power to take some of the day-to-day operations off your hands, you're free to use them to build community, both with your guests and your staff. It’s these connections that are the real magic of the camping industry, and we’re happy to empower Susan to keep making a difference—one summer job at a time.

If you’re looking for a reservation system that can lift the operational load so you can focus on fostering a sense of community, reach out today. CampLife is here to support you all the way.

Ready to get started?

Manage your park with seamless and modern reservation software for just $3 per reservation.