What Five Service Trips to the Dominican Republic Have Taught Me About CIT Training Back Home

If you drive southeast from Cabarete down roadway DR-5 — past the billiards halls and kite surf shops, roadside chicken joints and bodegas, and local businesses too small to be on Google Maps — you’ll eventually hit the Enriqueta Omler Elementary School. Lying just beyond a brightly muraled cinderblock wall, it’s a neighborhood public school with a handful of classrooms, a cement basketball court, and a dirt and gravel yard. Just one of many similar schools that dot the Dominican Republic.

Enriqueta Omler is also where I’ve had the privilege of bringing the Counselors in Training (CITs) from Camp Scatico, a seven-week sleepaway camp in New York, every summer for the past five years. Since 2015, a one-week service trip to the Dominican Republic with around 25 rising high school juniors has been a foundational component and highlight of Scatico’s CIT program. Partnering with local nonprofit The DREAM Project, our CITs help run a day camp for some 100 Dominican kids between the ages of five and 14, acting as counselors as campers participate in sports, arts and crafts, English, and the sort of unstructured games and magic that we all know and cherish from our own camp experiences.

The more I reflect, the more I realize that, at its core, our on-the-surface unique experience is one replicated at camps all around the world every summer. Immersing ourselves in a new environment. Practicing kindness towards others. Learning to collaborate and have fun with people different from ourselves. Thinking creatively. Being flexible and open-minded. The kinds of skills and experiences honed on our trip to the Dominican Republic are ones honed at every summer camp, regardless of location, size, or resources. And during my five years of service trips with an accumulative 137 CITs, I’ve learned certain universal truths about CIT programming — truths that could enhance CIT training at nonprofit camps in California, residential camps in Maine, or day camps in Wisconsin.

1. The Best Growth Occurs When You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

A lot of cheesy motivational quotes detail how there can be no growth without discomfort. When working with teenaged CITs, I have found this to be particularly true. Many CITs return summer after summer to their camps; camp is their second home. While this is amazing, it also means that CITs often feel overly comfortable in their camp environments. They may even feel and act like they run the place. Designing training opportunities in which you can take CITs out of this comfort zone, whether literally or figuratively, pays off. Try partnering with a local nonprofit or summer program and have your CITs engage in a day of service with kids they’ve never met before. Or try scheduling a day where CITs help run the activities — or work with the kids — they are the least comfortable with, and then design a follow-up session about what that felt like. Intentionally force CITs to step out of their comfort zones and into places of growth.

2. Nonverbal Communication Matters

In the Dominican Republic our day campers, unsurprisingly, do not speak English. And while some of Scatico’s CITs take high school Spanish, many of them don’t speak a word of it, and nearly none are fluent. This might seem like an impossible barrier. How do you connect with or instruct a kid when you can’t talk to them? But every year in the Dominican Republic we relearn the miraculous power of nonverbal communication. Body language, eye contact, a reassuring smile, leading by example — we often forget the multitude of ways to effectively communicate. This past summer, one CIT whose Spanish began and ended at “hola,” shared that he actually felt he was a stronger counselor in the Dominican Republic because he was forced to be intentional about how he presented himself. Dedicating a portion of training to nonverbal communication — strong handshakes on Visiting Day, smiles during activities, how to clearly demonstrate an activity in crafts without repeating yourself a million times — will help CITs elevate themselves as counselors. It’s empowering for CITs to be reminded — especially those who are naturally more introverted — that how they carry themselves is noticed.

3. Getting Buy-in Makes a World of Difference

As many camp professionals can attest, enacting change at camp can be hard. Even the tiniest tweaks in programming can unleash surprisingly strong backlashes. Starting with the inaugural Dominican Republic trip in 2015 and now with its continued evolution, I’ve found that CIT input and buy-in has been instrumental to success. From asking CITs what art projects they want to make with kids, to how they want to modify sports activities, to scheduling evening circle-ups in which they suggest improvements for the following day, having CITs tangibly steer programming enhances their own performance. When it comes to training, have CITs break into groups and identify the three things they want to work on, and then design sessions around their ideas. Or allow them to plan one whole day themselves, and then debrief what did or didn’t work. CIT summer is all about gaining independence; let them exercise it.

4. Kids Are Kids, Even When They’re Teens

In many ways CIT summer is one of dichotomy and balance. Feedback we often receive from our CITs is they want more time to just hang out, be with their friends, and basically, feel like campers again. They are already nostalgic for experiences that happened just one summer ago. Our last day of camp in the Dominican Republic we organize a Scatico-style Color War, in part to let our Dominican campers in on the fun and magic of a tradition that is meaningful to us, but also to let our CITs relive a part of their own camper summers. And every year our CITs’ performance as leaders during Color War is one of their strongest. Designing blocks of time and activities for CITs to “just be kids again,” whether creating a fun-filled relay race, or a “throwback” bunk games activity with Jacks and Spit, or just building in unstructured hang time, provides them that outlet. It also makes it easier to encourage them to step up at other times.

5. When You Set the Bar High, People Will Meet It

The most challenging groups of CITs have often been the most successful during our one week of service, in part because our expectations for them are much higher and their responsibilities much greater than during a typical day back at camp. At Scatico, there are staff, division leaders, program heads, head counselors, etc., further up the chain of command. In the Dominican Republic, however, the CITs run the show. Our day camp’s success, or failure, lies on the CITs’ shoulders. And every year they rise to the challenge; they exceed expectations. Try giving your CITs a few outsized responsibilities over the course of the summer. Support them in designing and running a full camp activity. Empower them to lead their own optional game or spearhead a new game and teach it to the youngest campers. Give them the space to step up.

On their last night in the Dominican Republic, the CITs share reflections about what they learned and what they hope to bring back home with them. Many of their words echo: appreciation for the little things, maintaining a positive attitude in unexpected situations, the infectious joy of working with kids. On the first year of the trip, one CIT said simply: “Even across an ocean, camp brings people together.” There is a universality to the human connection and organic play that happens at camp. There is a universality to working with 15- and 16-year-olds in an in-between stage, no longer campers, not yet counselors. Sometimes it helps to zoom out and return to the fundamentals to get the nitty-gritty of training right.

Nicki Fleischner is an assistant director at Camp Scatico and has run the camp’s CIT Program since 2015. Nicki has presented at the Tri-State Camp Conference and written for Camp Business on the value of service work in a camp setting. She has a BA from Tufts University (2012), and an MA in Journalism from NYU (2016). Nicki has been a volunteer English teacher for children in Colombia and the Dominican Republic.

Photo courtesy of Camp Scatico, Elizaville, New York.