Back in the 70s the world was a more kindly place, and young Brits would think nothing of travel across the wider European continent. America, on the other hand, was far more of a distant adventure; no crossing through four different borders in an afternoon, in fact, no entry at all without the appropriate visa. For this Pan-European Brit, though, America remained his last big adventure. As a then teacher and youth leader, I was attracted by the opportunity to work as a counselor at that most traditional of American settings, a summer camp.
With my application completed and forwarded to one of the Cultural Exchange agencies, I awaited the result and landed a placement as the archery counselor for a co-ed overnight camp in the Pocono Mountain Region of PA: Pine Forest Camp.
The summer camp season, together with pre and post time for travel, was a big commitment, but one I eagerly anticipated. A few days of orientation in NYC paved the way for a bus ride to the small town of Greeley, and the start of a truly life changing experience.
International exchange counselors, while not so unusual today, were considered something of a trophy in those earlier times. My fifth grade campers wanted to know about any and everything British: Had I met The Queen, did I know the Beatles? Did I drink tea with every meal, and why did I talk “funny?” Eager young minds seeking knowledge, not just general, but culture specific; and a culture, of course, closely entwined with their own. My soccer skills, while average in England, were “awesome” I was frequently told, and the 24/7 opportunity to bond with and share ideas with these energetic and curious young guys was wrapped inside of a fun, caring environment called summer camp.
Albeit demanding, this wasn’t work in the strictest sense. Nobody instructed me to share my culture, I understood it to be a part of the job and, frankly, was delighted at the opportunity. These young men are now parents themselves, and still recount some of the good times we enjoyed, as well as gaining appreciation for countries outside of their township, their state, this great country.
I’ll fast forward my own life story in just a moment. Before doing so, however, I’d like to make the strongest case for permitting nothing to interfere with this free flow of ideas and staff members from so many countries – not just English speaking – to maintain a vital and significant interchange from their respective homelands. Summer Camp is a unique and wonderful creative natural environment; creative for growth… mental, physical, and spiritual. Blend in an international culture exchange visitor or two and a boy or girl takes home knowledge that no formal classroom can impart. Indeed, international camp staff are still considered an important staffing adjunct because of the intrinsic value they bring to camp programs utilizing them. They are treated well and with respect and they, too, take home a live flavor of a section of America that no twenty four hour news feed can possibly bring to life. They make lifelong friends and extend the hand of dialog and interchange in many intangible ways. We/they are automatic goodwill ambassadors from our home country. Closing this open door would be a terrible mistake.
As for me, I fell head over heels for the music counselor, and after three years, married her. Thirty eight years later we have three grown children of our own, all of whom have attended and been counselors at camp. Am I prejudiced in my international staff thinking? You bet. You’ll understand why if you’ve ever been a counselor at a summer camp.
P.S. Our youngest is presently interning in Berlin and is gently critical of his college friends who (his words) ‘are clueless’ about inhaling the culture of the country.