Making Ordinary Moments Extraordinary

by Jeffrey Leiken, M.A.

Greg was a first-time camp counselor. He went to college in the Midwest and could teach tennis. There was nothing remarkable about him on the surface. He was a nice guy, got along well with his peers, and did what he was asked to do. When the campers arrived, however, something transpired. Campers from all ages congregated around him. Even some of the toughest campers in camp liked him. At his mid-summer evaluation the head counselor dared to ask him this question, “What is your secret? What are you doing that all these kids are drawn to you?”

Greg’s answer was simple, yet poignant.“I consistently do the little things that matter, and I do them when others don’t.”

At a recent two-day winter retreat for twenty camp counselors from a northeast summer camp, the intention was to engage them in activity and dialogue that would gather ideas, suggestions, and insights on how to improve their camp. The secondary goal was to get this core group working together as a team to bring a heightened spirit of seriousness and commitment to the staff.

One activity asked them to imagine and describe their “ideal camp” — specifically what it would look, sound, and feel like — to think of a time in their history at camp when it was most like this ideal and to describe what the factors were that made it so. This led to a rich and vivid sharing of stories — mostly of what they called “peak moments.” Most of the stories happened around big events or at the final campfire — the moments when sworn enemies came together, when a horribly homesick camper wouldn’t let go of his counselor when his parents arrived, when a “loser” camper grew up to become a director.

These stories are a significant part of camp folklore and mythology. Many camp professionals went into this field because of moments like these — the defining moments we teach our counselors to expect — the special event days that we look forward to with great expectation before the campers even arrive. Often when a counselor struggles in week five we tell them, “Wait until the buses are ready to leave — and the kids cry and don’t want to say good-bye. Then you’ll understand what an impact you’ve made.”

The implication of all this is that it is okay to wait while the tension and drama builds — to wait for the extraordinary moments to occur.

Many of the most effective camp counselors take a very different approach. They don’t wait. They make every moment important, and they act on it. Greg, for example, made it a point to go up to three random campers each night at the flag lowering ceremony and privately give them accolades for something he liked or admired about them. No one knew he did this, and over the course of fifty-four days of camp, more than 150 campers received unsolicited attention and praise from this young man. Some of the compliments he gave were the defining moments for these campers.

Imagine for a moment a camp where every counselor followed this practice.

Benchmarks

Last year, one camp director wanted to dramatically increase the attention and priority her staff put on doing the little things that mattered most to the campers. Rather than emphasize this during orientation, only to have it fade into the hustle of daily camp life, she established it as the most essential consideration for her staff. Each week she began staff meetings by requiring every counselor to share a story about how they had done something to positively impact a camper’s life — calling these benchmark moments. The more subtle and unexpected the counselor’s act and the lengths the counselor had to go to do it, the higher the bar was raised. The results were magnificent. She had her closest knit staff ever and the least amount of discipline issues among campers. In addition, she had virtually no parent complaints — a benchmark that most camp professionals would dream to achieve.

Peaceful Bedtimes

At night, after lights out, coverage is a challenge at many camps. The effort to allow staff time off often means leaving one counselor to cover several cabins at night. It is no surprise that so many problems arise between campers at night when there is the least coverage. One camp decided to change its policy and require one counselor to be on duty and in the bunk with his or her campers until they were asleep. The camp compensated by making a later curfew for those on time off. During orientation, an entire session was spent on how to do bed- times in a quietly and orderly manner. Staff were taught how to lead discussions, tell stories, and create positive bedtime rituals.

One counselor started a ritual that spread to his whole unit. Before turning the lights out, he would get every one quiet. Then he’d go around and give each person thirty seconds to talk about the highlight of his day. This was followed by each camper getting thirty more seconds to either thank someone or share something they had learned that day. The campers loved it so much that they came to look forward to their bedtimes! More impressive than that — so did the counselors!

Current Events

Another part of the mythology of camp is how isolated or “cut off” we are from the rest of the world. One camp counselor was deeply moved and inspired during the summer of 2002 by the story of the coal miners in West Virginia who survived waist deep in near freezing water for three days until they were rescued. In particular, he was compelled by the way they tied themselves together and took turns being on the inside of the huddle to keep each other warm. He learned how they took turns writing notes to their loved ones and sealed them in a waterproof container, not knowing if they would be alive to see them delivered.

That story of the coal miners and their courage became his bunk’s bedtime story one night — only he added a bit. He emphasized how these men survived by relying on one another and working as a team. He then asked each camper to take a minute and write a positive, personal note to each of the other campers in the bunk. He told them that he would collect them and distribute the notes in three days time — much the same as these miners did when they were rescued. This group of eleven-year-old boys quietly scribbled away notes to one another for nearly an hour. When they finally received the notes written to them, the whole mood shifted in the bunk — they became one of the most unified groups in camp.

An Unordinary Day

A camp counselor decided to take her own initiative to get past the mid-summer slump in week five. She spontaneously woke her campers one morning to the announcement that “today is Unordinary Day.” Her thirteen-year-old campers looked puzzled. She explained that everything they did that day would be unconventional, unordinary. They began by dressing up for breakfast. Then they went and made other cabins’ beds. They enthusiastically participated in all activities! As the day progressed, they become more and more unordinary. The campers decided the most unordinary thing of all that they could do was to be on time and quiet for announcements. They took it upon themselves to get the whole camp on time and quiet. There was such a sense of solidarity and unity among the camp that day as the director walked out to the evening line up and was greeted with total silence and attendance. This counselor had a ball as her campers — and all those around her — broke out of the mid-summer slump and made an ordinary day into an extraordinarily unordinary day to remember.

What each of these examples — and the hundreds more camp professionals have experienced — have in common is that the counselor acted intentionally. These counselors decided that they would take action now, rather than wait until some special day. Those who do it consistently make summers happen that are magical for those around them. They have summers filled with the kind of moments for which others hope. And they raise the mark of expectation — they make us realize that all things are possible with the right intention and right action — that any moment can be extraordinary. What better time and place to begin exploring what’s possible right now at your camp this summer.

Jeffrey Leiken, M.A., is a professional counselor and camp consultant, specializing in training, supporting and counseling camp counselors and camp leaders. More techniques for camp counseling excellence will be found in Jeffrey Leiken’s soon-to-be-published book Camp Counseling Magic™. For more information about this book and his consulting services, contact him at 415- 441-8218 or e-mail JLeiken@MentorCounselor.com or visit his Web site www.mentorcounselor.com.

Originally published in the 2003 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.