Q and A with our Director, Joe Mendes
Who are you?
Glad you asked. I’m the owner of Camp Roosevelt Firebird. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, attended the University of Michigan and have been a teacher in Denver, Oakland, Tucson and Cleveland. I have two children, Eaves 25 and Mariah 22. both wonderful kind souls.
I am a family oriented guy; I love to sing and play the ukulele. I’m a diehard Cleveland sports fan. I’m an entertainer. A hands-on guy. I like getting down in the dirt and working hard. I love to travel, hike, camp and build things. I love to barbecue. I really enjoy learning about other cultures.
What is important to you about your summer camp?
Camp must be a safe place physically and emotionally. When a parent sends their child or children to our summer camp, they are trusting us to provide a great environment where their children can thrive, grow, have fun and be comfortable being who they are.
It's a tremendous responsibility that I take very seriously.
As a teacher for the past 30 years, I have always felt this way. I want kids to learn, to grow, to develop in ways they did not think possible. I am creative. I like to motivate. I like to provide a setting or structure that fosters positive emotions and provides opportunities for confidence to develop.
I’m also very serious about how we, as a culture, educate children and young adults. I care deeply about social justice and peace in the world. I want our campers to go out into the world and make positive change. That’s what we aim for at camp.
So, I am a teacher first and foremost and always will be. Which is ironic, in a way, because I am also a big kid.
What does that mean?
Oh, I love to have fun. I have a silly side. My friends and family might say I am prone to immature moments. I accept that. In some ways, it has helped me to relate to kids all these years, especially those who can be hard to reach. I love the challenge of finding ways to connect with kids. And I have been successful at doing that.
What is your educational background?
I graduated from the University of Michigan with an undergraduate degree in History, a Master's Degree in History and a Social Studies Secondary Teaching Certificate. I also earned an Elementary Teaching Certificate from John Carroll University.
What about your teaching?
I’ve taught every age group from first graders to adults. I’m often asked, “What grade is your favorite?” And seriously, I don’t have one. All ages are great. I always felt the kids were fine; we just had to get the grown-ups in line. It’s the environment in which we learn that matters most. At summer camp, I can make sure the environment is positive, inviting and inspirational.
I taught in Colorado, California, Ohio and Arizona. I taught History, Math, Science, Reading and more. In Thailand, I taught English as a Second Language in a refugee camp. I was a teaching assistant at the University of Michigan during graduate school. Most recently, from 2000-2016, I taught 4th and 5th graders in my hometown public schools. I was also a youth recreation league basketball coach.
How does your experience help you as a camp director?
I know how to bring people together to work toward a shared mission. As a teacher, I always created a strong sense of community in my classroom and a partnership with parents. My thirty-one years of teaching experience inform our camp’s philosophy and programming and are reflected in our camp mission.
Over time, I’ve learned how to motivate people and how to treat each person as an individual. It’s true, I’ve experienced a lot. And I have just enough wisdom to know that there will always be new surprises, new personalities, and new challenges to face. That’s what motivates me.
It’s in my blood. My Great Aunt "Chuck" founded a girls camp in 1945 in the northern woods of Wisconsin near Lake Superior. I attended a neighboring camp, North Star, as a camper and counselor for 10 years. It had an amazing impact on my life and my values. As a camper, I started as a shy 10 year old and slowly gained confidence and insight into who I was. Summer camp helped mold me and reinforced the values I was taught at home. Later, as a counselor, I learned how to lead and how to teach. I made many lifelong friends who I’m still very close with.
And in addition to all that, it was just plain fun. I have so many hilarious memories from my years at North Star; the opportunity of helping provide those lifelong memories for others gets me very excited every day. It’s what drives me.
When did you begin thinking of owning a summer camp?
In my 20’s and 30’s. I pursued this goal in earnest for five years in my early thirties working a variety of camp jobs -- from maintenance to management and gaining experience. I literally scoured the country for opportunities and property. I even attended summer camp conferences and walked the lobby with a sign board that said, “Young Couple. Looking to Buy a Camp.”
Why did you stop looking? What happened?
At that time, Cynthia (my partner) and I had two very young children. After several opportunities fell through at the last minute, we changed our plans. We didn’t want to drag our kids across the country any more. We moved back home to Northeast Ohio to be among family and friends. And once again, I fell in love with being a fully engaged teacher. I taught 4th and 5th graders in my hometown schools. And I made my classroom a little like camp by creating unique classroom traditions, family connections, going on camping trips and coaching my students on the weekends.
What are your goals for camp now?
It’s simple; I want to camp to continue being vibrant, successful and fun. I want our organzation to contunue evolving. Our recent work focusing on anti-racism, inclusuivity and restorative justice makes me very proud. Approxiamtely 45% of our recent campers have been kids of color and 50% of our campers have recieved some level of sliding scale financial aid (our non profit, Friends of Camp Roosevelt Firebird 501c3 provides "camperships" for kids so they may attend.) We have amazing diversity which is relefcted at all levels: campers, staff and our leadership team.
In 2021 we successfully launched Oak Hill, a gender inclusive village specifically designed for campers identifying as transgender and/or non binary. All campers have the opportunity to opt in to Oak Hill, Roosevelt and/or Firebird Villages. We also launched a Restorative Justice program in 2021 where campers and staff learn to "do sorry" instead of just "saying sorry."
Of course, we have much more work to do but I'm proud of our progress and of our willingness to grow. We are among the national leaders in camping regarding diversity, equity and inclusion; and perhaps the only private summer camp making this a central part of our mission. This, more than anything else, makes us stand apart.
Camp is an amazing place for kids to grow and learn. I am committed to our community and to keep searching for new programs and ways to stretch ourselves. This summer we are launching the "Homestead Program" where teens will construct an Appalachian Log Cabin and live as pioneeers.
I want this wonderful place to exist as a safe haven for years to come.
What else should we know about you?
I’m very accessible, transparent, communicative and open to ideas, thoughts and suggestions. I have a track record of imagining projects others didn’t quite get out of the gate. Last summer, my first at camp, we built an adobe pizza oven as a teaching tool (and for the delicious pizza!); we created a farming program, built our own mountain biking trails for our new fleet of bikes and brought back a family camp session.
Can I meet you to talk about camp?
Yes! Of course! That is the best way to learn about what we offer. I love meeting with new campers and their parents, current camp families and alumni. Let’s make some plans. Contact me by email, telephone or through my camp director Facebook Page.
Facebook: Joe Tree Mendes