When I mention to people that I'm a Girl Scout, they give me the "once-over." You know, moving their eyes up and down my body, then adding; "Aren't you a little old to be a Girl Scout?" I'm thirty-three! How is that old? Ah well, I love that I'm still a Girl Scout (lifetime member, thank you) and am proud of being part of an organization that truly helped mold me. I joined because of my sister; I stayed because of camp.
I first went to Zoar Valley Girl Scout Camp when I was eight, approaching nine. My sister was assistant camp director, so my parents were sure that I would not get homesick. Luckily, my golden retriever had joined my sister for the summer so I had even more of my home at camp. I had a super fun two weeks, and I never looked back. How could I when I spent my days hiking, swimming, horseback riding, feeding animals, creek-walking, playing in the clay pit, singing silly songs in the dining hall, visiting the trading post, learning how to make every type of boondoggle imaginable, and meeting friends?
I went to camp as a camper for the next six years, and was never homesick. Not once. Not that I didn't miss my parents . . . it was just that I was having way too much fun at camp! I even had fun during major storms and floods! I idolized my counselors as if they were rock stars. I wrote to them religiously . . . and the majority wrote back. This was way before e-mail, and I still have many of the letters.
Things were different back then, and I was able to work at camp as a kitchen aide when I was fourteen. The jump to staff was not that difficult . . . I had become friends with a number of the staff in my last year as a camper, and it was a natural progression for me at the time. The hardest part was my first meal with campers. I was filling water buckets when I glanced out into the dining hall and saw campers laughing and throwing food, and I realized that camp life would never be the same again. One tear rolled down my cheek, which I wiped away as the head cook bellowed my name and I returned to my duties. But something about working at camp "clicked" for me that summer of 1991, and I worked at Zoar Valley for two more summers. Then I worked at Camp Seven Hills until 2005, and moved to Amahami Outdoor Center in 2006.
Over the eighteen summers that I have been a camp counselor, I have overcome fights with best friends; ankle injuries; severe cuts on my calf due to tripping on a rusty campfire grill; a nurse who poured rubbing alcohol down said cuts; crazy co-counselors; horses getting loose; homesickness; at-camp piercing; moldy water bottles; attitudes; latrines with "splashback"; fights with directors/other staff members; pranks; power outages; vandalism of tent-cabins; sleepless nights; gossip; runaway campers; bears; skunks; porcupines; and more. These "bad things" are nothing in comparison to the wonderful things I have gained from my experiences: the look on a camper's face when she has completed a boondoggle lanyard, turned her canoe upright after a tippy test, performed at a talent show, or won a counselor hunt. I've enjoyed watching my campers become counselors; the view of the lake as a long week comes to an end at a closing campfire; the butterflies that I still get when I pull onto camp for the first time of the season; the ability to tie knots that have more use in the "real world" than you think; knowing that when times are hard, all you need is just a kind smile from a friend or a hand to hold to cheer you up.
All these years later, I am still a camp counselor. Sure, my title has changed over the years, but I have continually referred to myself as a camp counselor. I owe this job to the staff I had as a child and the staff I worked with along the way. Those who loved me for me, made me smile daily, who inspired me to be a better person. I would not change a thing; I regret nothing; and I would do it all again. I am lucky I have the summers off to still "go to camp."
Camp is this special place that nobody understands unless they've been there. Trying to explain the phenomenon to someone who has never been to camp is like putting a watermelon through a ring. Impossible. That's okay. We "camp" people know what it's all about. Friendships that blossom are forever, even if you don't talk for years. You remember your bunkmate from twenty years ago — or better yet — you still talk to her (and go to Bingo on a regular basis). Or that staff member that you bonded with so tightly that you just know she'll be in your wedding and you in hers . . . after only knowing her for six weeks. Utopia. There is seriously nothing like it. I have reconnected with so many of my counselors, co-counselors, and bunkmates that it blows my mind each day to see who they've become. So many are successful and happy . . . does this have to do with camp? I think so, truly. I see campers now who hang on their counselors as I did, and I am immediately thrown back to 1985 when I started going to camp. In pouring rain or blistering heat, I have thought how I could be, and have been, that special counselor to a camper.
I continue the cycle. The cycle of camp.
Sally K. Schmidt, a.k.a. "Bloomer," spends her summers as the assistant camp director / program director for Girl Scouts of NYPENN Pathways' resident camp, Amahami Outdoor Center. During the "off-season" she is a high school counselor for special needs students at Albion High School in Albion, NY. Sally is a member of ACA, Upstate New York. E-mail Sally at firstname.lastname@example.org.