Everything You Say and Do Matters: Teaching Staff to Put Campers First

by Jeff Leiken

Camp staff training is a strange concept. We have a few days, maybe a week to orient staff to their job. Yet, it's truly impossible to fully prepare them for what to expect because this work is not static like punching numbers; it is dynamic and constantly changing. Try and keep up with one child for just a day, let alone bring a dozen of them together. Dynamic to say the least! Even those of us who have done it professionally for years still regularly learn new skills.

So what then should we "orient" them to, so as to best prepare them to do their job? How about this?

Kids First

What if you could successfully impress upon the minds and intentions of your staff that the role they play in children's lives is profoundly important? That this is not just a fun summer job? That everything they say and do matters? That one thing they say or do could completely change a child's life?

What would it be like to have an entire staff who lead their entire summer with these thoughts in mind? What if your staff members were
always thinking, "Kids first."


This is very peculiar work we do in this profession. Just try and explain to an outsider what it is you really do in the part of your job where you directly counsel kids. "I'm a counselor. I work with kids." Does that really explain it? Does that even begin to explain the layers and layers of what it is you really do?

Do you know what it's like in those moments when you do incredible work? Those moments when a camper who has driven everyone else crazy (probably their parents and teachers at home, too) comes to you and you are able to help him! Maybe you are the first person ever to get through to him? Do you know this experience?

No one else could help him - often times including yourself - up until now. But you did!

How did you do it?
Suddenly, something came to you, something to say, something to do. You thought of some story to tell. You did something that suddenly in a moment caused this camper to "get it," to walk away from you with a smile no one knew he had, to go and make a whole different set of choices about what to be doing, to go and apologize to the group, to change his ways and change his life. Sometimes the change is only in subtle ways, other times in profound ways -
always though, significant.

Later on you relay the story to others and they ask, "How did you come up with that?" And you go inside and check and your only answer is, "I don't know! It just came to me!"

So, how do you explain this to those who haven't had the experience?

Believing in Children

You explain it by setting up for them the mind-set that makes it possible, which is to get every staff member believing that every child can be reached, every child can make changes, every child deserves a chance, every child is just a few key decisions away from leading an incredible life. They - your staff - might very well be the ones to help them get there.

With this mind-set, their intention then becomes to make happen in reality what they do know and believe to be possible. Your staff then begin to make different choices: choices of what to be doing, choices of what to be listening for, choices of how to best understand what kids are really asking for and how to then help them learn new, more mature, and more appropriate ways to get it. They become better camp counselors. They become the type of people who inspire children. They become better people.

Practical Suggestions

During staff training, tell the story at right. In fact share it on the first day, before you've done any introduction or played name games. Make your first impression on them a lasting impression in a most positive way! Then tell them a dozen more such camp related "success" stories at various times throughout orientation.

Do an exercise where you have them share with each other their stories about who most impacted their lives and how they did it. What was it that was different about this teacher or coach or relative? Have them tell the stories in pairs, and then get a dozen or so to share with the whole group.

Then end the exercise by asking them this question: "Would you like it if this summer there are kids who leave our camp, and - the way you think of this person you shared about - is the way they now think about you?"

Notice your internal reaction when you read that question. Feel that rush of adrenaline and motivation when such a powerful notion runs through your system. Imagine for them the experience when they think this for the first time. Setting up a scenario as you did and then asking them a question like this is a most effective way to make a lasting impression. I guarantee it. I've done it with thousands of staff members and consistently get feedback saying that this is what they remembered most from training.

Then say, "Good. Let's get to work. We have a lot to learn and you've already made the most important step, which is committing to how big and how important this work is that you do."

Share Successes throughout the Summer

Throughout the summer, begin each staff meeting by sharing success stories. Have staff turn to the person next to them and share stories, and then collect a few to share aloud with the entire group. Sometimes, you will share something that a staff member did not even realize they had done.

Again, the key is to begin the meeting with taking fifteen minutes or so to do this. Also, you will get through much more of the rest of your agenda if you first get them in a positive state of mind for the meeting rather than if they are dragging in and tired! Talking about their successes and great moments of the last week will shift their mood almost immediately.

As a supervisor, commit yourself to identifying at least one positive counseling experience each day and taking a minute to acknowledge - publicly or privately - the staff member who did it. This will force you to refine your skills at being a positive leader and keep the all important message at the forefront of your mind, too.

Believe in the possibilities of this work. Raise the mark of expectation for your staff, just as you want them to raise the mark of expectation for their campers. Expect a lot from them, hold them accountable for it, and enjoy the results.

I know your campers will.

Jeffrey Leiken, M.A., is a national trainer and educator and professional mentor and counselor who has excelled in the field of creating meaningful relationships and lasting change in the lives of young people. He leads training sessions nationwide, sharing his skills and knowledge with other concerned adults. He will be a speaker at the ACA National Conference in Albuquerque and at most ACA regional conferences. For more information, call him at 415-441-8218 or visit his Web site (www.mentorcounselor.com).

Originally published in the 2000 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.