“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Ugh, please excuse me while I roll my eyes. Every now and again I run into a camp pro who refers to camp as “work,” with finger quotes — meaning they don’t really consider it work at all. When meeting these colleagues I do the polite thing and nod and smile as I look for a way out of the conversation. Where do these people actually work? Do they truly love their work so much they don’t consider it as a job?
I started my career in 2012, and currently work as a full-time program manager helping manage summer camp and organizing year-round outdoor education programming. Last winter our team took some time to talk with former staff about what they loved, hated, and everything in between about working with us. One of the staff we surveyed, Justin, worked the full year with us. When we asked what we could do better, he explained that he was motivated by seeing how much we loved our jobs during the school season and encouraged us to let our seasonal summer staffers feel that love more. My stomach clenched. What if I don’t love my job? Why did he even assume I did love my work?
After recovering from that feedback, I realized I do have love for summer camp. I’m deeply passionate about the mission-based work we’re doing. I am confident that the kids and young adults I work with are better because they’ve come through our program. I get to be staff members’ first boss and care for them, mentor them, and watch them become better versions of themselves. The work I do has a direct and serious impact on the community. By working at summer camp I am fulfilled, energized, and engaged in ways I have not been able to replicate anywhere else. I have love for my job.
I also have beef with my job. I have to wake up early every day. I have to teach staff what it means to be a professional. I communicate with angry kids, angry parents, and angry staff. People share things with me about their lives that hurt my heart. I don’t always get what I want. I can’t figure out how to stop my email from popping up as notification on my phone. I don’t get paid enough. This job is difficult, exhausting, trying work. It’s OK that every day isn’t my favorite day.
After some light obsessing over Justin’s comment, I realized once our summer season wraps up our program team experiences a major transformation. We turn into a tightknit, intricate team, which is a stark contrast to the seasonal workforce who plows through the summer. With my year-round staff of three, it is easy for my passion to seep out and be absorbed over nine months. The staff who work with us during the school year get a front-row view of what it means for me to be a camp professional. They are present with me for the hard times as well as the good ones. They experience firsthand why I choose this work every day and translate this passion and purpose I exhibit as feeling love for my job. It is much more difficult to share my love via osmosis with 60 staff over three months.
After some self-reflection, I realized that the question was not “What if I don’t love my job?” I obviously do love my job — just not every minute of every day. The real question is how am I supposed to show my staff I love my job, even in the moments I don’t?
Last summer we led a “Finding Your Why” session during staff training. This was a half-hour session that we crammed in the best we could and never referenced again. So I was shocked to see it on a staff evaluation as one of their favorite training sessions. After doing a difficult job for as many years as I have been, I had become generally aware of what motivated me to return to the office each day, even on the days I really didn’t want to. Many of our staff, however, have no idea what they’re in for this summer, or why they’re doing it. Writing down their why isn’t a silly exercise but a grounding realization that can carry them through the summer.
This year we’re going to do better. This year I’m going to do better. We’re going to carve out intentional time for our staff to learn and discover their true why — the one that will push them through the tenth camper tantrum in a week. We will reference it regularly and help them rewrite their why as they develop into experienced professionals. This year our staff will understand purpose isn’t always sexy; sometimes it’s tired eyes and counting to three in your head. I will offer my staff a true and honest look into what it means for me to come into work every day, because it is important to help these new professionals understand that it’s OK if we have hard moments, hours, days, and weeks. It’s OK to feel moved by the work you’re doing while being challenged by it. And it’s OK if camp is actual work (no finger quotes), and it will certainly be work some days. If you have a strong enough, deep enough why, that’s how you get through the tough times. You don’t have to love your job every day if you can be clear with yourself and others that what you’re doing has purpose and meaning.
Jaclyn Folak, MS, started her camp journey as a YMCA day camp counselor, found full-time work at a Jewish summer camp, and is now happily employed with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee. Her work with the Boys & Girls Clubs has led to a Nonprofit Management Certificate among many other training opportunities. She looks forward to continuing to be moved by the work she’s doing to provide intentional experiences to those who connect with camp so that camp is a positive force in their life story.