Kevin was nine years old when his parents sent him to summer camp in Minnesota. He was overweight, not athletic, not very confident — and more than anything, not wanting to be there!
The first day of camp, the camp counselors took Kevin and his cabin mates to the ropes course. There they were asked to work as a team to help each other get over an eight-foot-high wall. When it was finally Kevin’s turn, the young boys tried as they might, but couldn’t get him over the wall. A well-intentioned camp counselor finally told Kevin that he could skip the wall and just walk around, trying to save Kevin from further disappointment.
Kevin was humiliated. He was the only boy who couldn’t do it.
The rest of that summer Kevin avoided the ropes course. He faked illness or injuries each time his group went there. When he got on the bus to go home, he vowed that not only would he never go back to that camp again, he would never go to any camp ever again.
His parents had other plans. That winter they excitedly told Kevin that they had signed him up for camp again. To Kevin’s horror, they had signed him up to the same camp.
That June, he got off the bus and was greeted by many of the same faces. While others were excitedly hugging each other, celebrating being reunited after a long winter of school, Kevin was already counting down the days before he could go home.
He dragged his bags to his bunk.
When the counselors came in and told the boys they were signed up for the ropes course, Kevin cringed. As Kevin describes it, “It was too late to fake illness and too early to fake an injury.”
With his head held low, he went along.
His camp counselor that second summer was new to camp. He noticed Kevin seemed withdrawn. He walked up alongside Kevin and instead of saying, “What’s wrong?” asked him, “Do you want to hear a joke?”
Kevin looked up. “Sure,” he said.
Kevin doesn’t recall the joke the counselor told him, or even if it made him laugh. He did recall that he liked this counselor immediately.
Another new counselor happened to be in charge of the ropes course that year. When his group got to the dreaded eight-foot wall that had been the sight of his humiliation a year earlier, Kevin just walked around the wall without even attempting to climb over it.
Both of these new counselors, however, had other plans as they refused to let him go without trying. “Boys, help Kevin get over this wall. We are not moving on until everyone does it!”
“But he can’t do it!” they cried out.
“At this camp, everyone can!” said the counselors.
What Kevin remembers more than anything from that summer was the feeling of exhilaration when he finally made it over the wall. Not that it was easy. It took him nearly half an hour of trying and failing. He got scraped up a bit and had to step on nearly every one of his cabin mates as they helped to get him over the wall.
But he did it, and the accomplishment was one of the great moments of his life.
When I first heard the story about Kevin, it was 1999 — eleven years after that moment of triumph. I heard it from Kevin himself who was then twenty-one years old. He was not only still at the camp; he was the counselor in charge of the ropes course.
Rachael turned fourteen while she was at camp in North Carolina. When she got on the phone for her birthday call with her parents, she broke into tears and begged to go home. Her camp counselor, who was in the room next door, overheard everything.
Several girls at camp had been teasing her. They made fun of the cello she’d brought with her. They made fun of the pictures of her friends at home. They made fun of her lack of style.
When she got off the phone and realized the counselor had heard everything, she was mortified. She hadn’t said a word to anyone in camp because the fear of showing she couldn’t handle it and of getting them in trouble was worse than the experience of being harassed by these girls. Her counselor was in a tough spot. She had to report it because it was expected of her. She also didn’t want to put Rachael in an even worse spot than she was in.
Though the head counselor and director were veterans at handling situations like this, it didn’t make Rachael feel any better. They assured her they could handle it without making her the scapegoat. They had a “No Teasing, No Bullying” policy and could easily say they overheard what was going on when the girls were doing it, and even act as if they were disappointed in Rachael for not coming forward herself — a technique that had always worked in the past.
True to the plan, it worked. They had a very difficult and intense meeting with the three girls, and then with the whole group. They ran two additional programs designed to allow girls to talk about their experiences and gain support and reassurance from their camp friends and camp staff.
While the teasing stopped and Rachael stayed through the summer, her counselor was aware that Rachael was never fully comfortable or happy. A few days before camp ended, she asked Rachael to take a walk with her down to the lake to go collect a few things the group had left behind. On the way, she asked Rachael how her summer had been since the meetings. Rachael said things were better in camp, but that wouldn’t change things at home. When her counselor asked her why, she was shocked by Rachael’s response. “Because you can make people stop saying things, but it doesn’t change that they are right.”
“Right???” her camp counselor replied with shock.
“How can you say they are right?” Rachael went on. “It is true that I’m a geek. I do play the cello. My friends are nerds. I am not popular. I’m not good looking like them. I’m not even that good of a student. I’ve never had a boyfriend. I’ve never even had a boy who likes me.”
Then she continued, “Those girls are good looking. They dress nicely. They have style. They know how to flirt. They have lots of friends . . . I have two. And they are not saying anything that other girls at home are not saying, too.”
The longer she went on, the more upset it made her camp counselor. It was so hard to hear this fourteen-year-old girl be so negative about herself and her life.
She wanted to say something, but everything she thought to say just sounded like every other cliché and well-intended message adults give kids. Those messages didn’t work for her when she was a young teen, and she knew they wouldn’t work for Rachael.
She stayed up half the night thinking about Rachael and asking herself questions like: What could she say that would make a difference? Why was it so hard to help a teenage girl think differently about herself?
Then it occurred to her what she could say.
The next morning the camp counselor asked Rachel to take another walk with her. They walked down to the lake and sat on the boardwalk.
“Listen Rachael,” she began, “there is nothing I can say to convince you not to believe what all these other girls say. I know that. I’ve been there. I’ve had adults who love me tell me all sorts of great things to try and comfort me and make me feel better . . . and I know it makes little difference. It wasn’t that long ago that I was your age and dealing with all this stuff, too. I still deal with it sometimes. So I want to tell you one thing that I have learned that I think you are old enough to learn, too: You get to choose whose opinions matter to you.
“For now you are choosing to believe the opinions of a bunch of insecure teenage girls and are comparing yourself to the standard set out there by stupid TV shows that just want to play on teenage girls’ insecurities. So yes, if you compare yourself to Gossip Girl or other shows and what these shows say it takes to be worthwhile, then what can I say?
“Just so you know, though, if you value and respect my opinion even a little bit, I will tell you that I think you are totally wrong and you are missing the point:
“You think you are a nerd. I think you are talented, maybe even gifted . . .
“You think only having two friends makes you a loser . . . I think I’d rather have two real, true, loyal friends who see me for who I am, love me for who I am, and will stand by me no matter how hard it gets than to have a life filled with drama and friends who can’t be relied upon and who make me feel insecure. It took me until I was twenty before I had a friend like that. You have two and you are only fourteen.
“You think you are just a nobody. I think you have a heart of gold; you have depth; you have sensitivity; you have character — I think you are the kind of person with whom I wish our world was filled.
“So you get to decide. Who is right? Whose opinion is the right one? Theirs or mine?!“
Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say.”
Rachael didn’t move. She sat there and tears poured out of her eyes. Those words from her camp counselor literally changed her life.
Years later, Rachael still tells the story of how her camp counselor opened her eyes and made her rethink everything she’d ever thought about herself and what was possible for her life.
One camp counselor in Wisconsin was told he’d be the counselor for the youngest boys’ cabin group. When the busses arrived, he quickly learned just how much extra work he would be doing. Too young and too small to do it on their own, he had to help every young camper carry his duffle bags to the bunk. He helped them unpack and make their beds — he even had to help one of them tie his shoes properly. It had only been a few hours, yet he was already wondering how he would have the patience to make it through the next eight weeks.
That night, they scheduled a soccer game for his cabin group to play against the other youngest boys’ group. Randomly, he assigned different positions to each camper, asking a quiet, non-athletic, nine-year-old named Jeffrey to play goalie.
Jeffrey nervously trudged out to the field and stood there hoping and praying the ball didn’t come to him. Not only was he not an athlete, he’d never even played soccer before. His parents had written in his confidential form that he was very nervous about competition and had selected this camp because of how many other activities there were than just playing sports.
None of that mattered now. The game began, and the boys played the way eight- and nine-year-olds play: Some knew what they were doing; some just ran into each other; some chased dragon flies. The game remained scoreless until one player on the other team broke free and dribbled down the field the way his soccer coach at home had taught him. He lined up and took the only shot on goal the entire game.
Nine-year-old Jeffrey saw the ball coming right at him. He positioned himself to stop the ball. He looked down at his hands and feet and said to himself, “I can do this; I can do this; I can do this.” Unfortunately, Jeffrey forgot one critical thing — to actually watch the ball! The next time he saw it, the ball literally rolled between his legs into the goal, and the game was over. They lost 1 to 0.
The other boys in his group came up to him and expressed their disappointment. One of them said, “He sucks.” And another one followed up with, “Why does he have to be in our bunk?”
Hearing the comments and seeing little Jeffrey on the verge of tears, the counselor quickly came over and put an end to the teasing and criticism. As the boys walked away, Jeffrey sat on the grass by himself, wanting nothing more than to go home. It was his first night ever away at camp, and it had already turned into the worst day of his life.
The camp counselor walked over to him and put his hand on his shoulder. “Jeff,” he said very calmly, “I gotta give you credit.”
“Credit for what?” cried Jeffrey. “I’m lousy at sports. I hate this camp. I want to go home!”
“Credit for even trying,” replied the camp counselor calmly. “Because you know why? When I was your age, they couldn’t have even gotten me out there to try, so I respect you for trying. At this camp, just trying is enough. So, don’t let those guys get to you. They are all going to have their moments this summer. You will see. You are just fine.”
Jeffrey paused and looked up at the counselor and suddenly stopped crying. It was a moment of truth. For a moment the thought passed through his mind that this counselor was just trying to make him feel better because it was his job.
But Jeffrey sensed something else — something that Kevin’s counselors his second summer had, something Rachael’s counselor had, something that you as a camp counselor this summer must decide right now if you, too, are going to have.
This something has many components:
- A willingness to go over and above.
- An authentic care and concern for your campers.
- A refusal to let any child leave your camp thinking less about him or herself.
- A commitment to bring out the best in your campers.
- And dozens of other qualities of character, intention, attitude, and determination that separate any ordinary camp counselor from the truly extraordinary one that you can be.
One last thought before I close. That last story about the soccer game and Jeffrey is as personal as it gets. I am Jeffrey and my camp counselor was “Jungle” Jimmy Meyers. It happened in June 1977. I went from wanting to go home to staying at camp sixteen years. I doubt Jimmy Meyers even remembers me thirty-five years later. But the impact of his words and his presence in my life that summer has stayed with me forever.
So one last “moment of truth”: Choose to be like these counselors, and one day, not only will a Kevin, Rachael, or Jeffrey be saying the same about you, but in some small or maybe even big way, the world will be a better place because of it.
The power is in your hands. The opportunity is in front of you. Just choose.
Jeffrey Leiken, MA, is a professional mentor who has helped trained over 10,000 summer camp counselors. He travels the world, specializing in empowering youth to lead extraordinary lives. Learn more at www.Leiken.com, or contact him at Jeff@Leiken.com or 415.441.8218.
Originally published in the 2012 May/June Camping Magazine.