Less is more when it comes to Tamakwa's Program Director

By Robert Sarner, The South Tea Echo, Fall 2003

Why is it that when Leslie Arrin Hartsman speaks, campers and staff listen? Agreed, he usually has a microphone in his hand when he addresses Tamakwans. Agreed, no one at camp knows how to wield a mic like Les. Agreed, as chief announcement-maker he has important things to say. As such, he makes himself heard in the Dining Hall at the end of every meal.

But even without the aid of a public address system, Les has a commanding presence. Better known as Hartsy, his vibrant personality and rich sense of humour are very much in evidence at Tamakwa every day of the summer in his capacity as Program Director.

He may log the most airtime on the Dining Hall mic but that pales next to his other roles at camp. In any given week, he's responsible for much of what happens at Tamakwa whether it be evening programs, Friday night services, Hoby Hubs, twilight activities, inter-camp, block schedule, individual choice and a lot more.

Thanks to his creative imagination, Tamakwa's theme days, one-day programs and colour wars are such fun-filled memorable events. Most campers, and even some staff, don't realize that it's Hartsy who conceives these programs.

"When it comes to special programs at camp, I am a behind the-scenes kind of guy, more like the producer/director of a movie," says Hartsy, in his 8th season at Tamakwa. "I like to find the staff and CITs who have the desire and ability to coordinate the various activities and to place them in the right spots. Then I put them all together in a seamless summer."

Before putting good people in place, Hartsy must first come up with the Big Idea for each program. To that end, during the off-season Hartsy keeps his finger on the pulse of popular culture and entertainment. He's constantly on the lookout for new trends that appeal to campers and which could serve as inspiration for future theme days, colour wars and other special programs.

"I love looking for new material for camp programs," says Hartsy, who runs an internet marketing company in Toronto. "Being in the city, I see many things. I often flip through the TV guide to see what's available for today's kids, whether it be a new series or game show. I'm also exposed to lots of media and find all kinds of potential subjects for camp. It's true that now that I'm 30, what I sometimes think may be cool is not as cool as what a 15-year-old may think."

Hartsy is nothing if not a creature of camp. Born in 1972, he has spent every summer of his life in a camping environment. He began at Forest Valley Day Camp in Toronto where his mother was the Arts and Crafts Director, his uncle Program Director, his grandfather Land Sports Director, and his great uncle Swim Director. At age 7, Hartsy graduated to overnight camp at Northland, then Wahanowin and finally New Moon, where he spent 13 years as a camper and staff member. In 1996, Hartsy joined Tamakwa as a boys counselor before becoming Program Director in 1999.

Tamakwa has never been the same ever since. This, due to Hartsy's fertile brain that maps out each summer far in advance on many fronts. "A lot of people at camp live day to day or at most one day ahead," says Hartsy, who now shares the Tamakwa record of five consecutive summers at the programming helm. "In my position, I must know what will be happening well in advance and plan for it accordingly. Unlike most staffers and campers, I'm living in the future all the time."

But Hartsy never loses sight of the here and now. Especially when he gets that microphone in his hand. If he were not holding down such a highly lucrative, prestigious position at Tamakwa, he'd probably be performing in the cast of Saturday Night Live or in some other similar incarnation. A good-looking version of John Belushi, Hartsy has a wit and presence reminiscent of the late SNL pioneer. It often shines through at camp especially when he becomes one of the Blues Brothers in Tamakwa's own annual rendition of the band and SNL.

"I like to create a fun, upbeat personality on the microphone, someone lively who people want to pay attention to," says Hartsy, ever the performer and master of ceremonies. "It's very tough to get people quiet at camp and if you're just talking in a normal monotone voice, you won't get their attention. So I try to keep up a certain personality that will make people turn their heads, listen and wonder what I'm going to say next."

Like many performers, Hartsy has a give-and-take relationship with his audience. "I love to see all the faces turning and smiling when I'm speaking to the camp," says Hartsy. "I love hearing [Land Sports Director] Jeff Avigian yelling out, making fun of me. I love the heckling. A lot of people don't like it but I enjoy it. It pushes me. It motivates me to want to talk on the microphone just that little bit more. Just to give them that extra push."

Keep pushing, Hartsy. Tamakwa is a better place for it.

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