When I first applied to work at a residential summer camp, my primary goal was securing summer housing. However, after three summers working at Skyland Camp, I knew that the experience had become much more than that. I had not only found a place to stay, but also formed a tight-knit community, acquired invaluable skills, and created lifelong memories.

Throughout my late high school and college years, I was an unaccompanied homeless youth, meaning I experienced homelessness without a parent or guardian. This was an overwhelming and isolating experience. While I was fortunate to have on-campus housing during the school year, the task of finding a place to live during summer breaks remained a daunting hurdle. I started researching summer housing options as soon as my freshman fall semester started. I remember sitting in the computer lab one night, searching for summer residential jobs, when I stumbled upon Skyland Camp. Nestled in the mountains of western North Carolina, they offered a diverse range of activities, from archery and horseback riding to musical theater, swimming, crafts, and more. Looking at their website and photos felt almost surreal.

Despite never having attended a residential summer camp as a child, the images of joy, community, and incredible opportunities at Skyland Camp resonated deeply with me. It was evident that, for both campers and staff, Skyland was a second home. At that moment, I knew that there was nothing I wanted more than to work there. I wasted no time and submitted my application that very night. The anticipation of an interview offer was nerve-wracking, but when I received the email confirming the interview, I was filled with joy. 

Ultimately, I was offered a position as a camp counselor and archery instructor for the upcoming summer. Receiving the hiring offer felt like a tremendous weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Not only had I secured summer housing, but I had also gained the opportunity to become part of the very community I had admired from afar.

I spent three transformative summers at Skyland Camp as a counselor, and my experience there was truly life-changing. Skyland provided a safe and nurturing environment where I could foster personal and professional growth and create lifelong memories. It became a place where I truly belonged, and, as a result, I thrived. 

I started this story by telling you that I was experiencing homelessness, but there were many other attributes, skills, and interests that I held at the time. As a freshman, I was also a social work major, a straight-A student, a member of the honors college, an ambassador and tour guide at my university, an intern through Communities in Schools — where I worked weekly with middle school students — and much more. I was a natural fit for a summer camp role and excelled as a camp counselor. That said, had I not known to search for summer residential jobs, or if algorithms hadn't led me to discover Skyland Camp, I might not have known that working at a summer camp was an option for me. I therefore likely would have had nowhere to live during the summer of 2015, which could have dramatically altered the trajectory of my life.

I now hold a master's degree in social work and serve as the director of SchoolHouse Connection's Youth Leadership and Scholarship Program, a national scholarship for students experiencing homelessness. This summer, my camp journey came full circle when I organized a retreat for a group of our scholarship recipients at Skyland Camp. Witnessing our scholars experience Skyland Camp and reflecting on how far I've come since my first arrival at their gates eight years ago was truly incredible.

A summer camp job is an invaluable experience for any young adult, but its transformative impact can be especially profound for students experiencing homelessness. I'm optimistic that in the future, we will see camps initiate collaborations with organizations and college campuses focused on serving students experiencing homelessness to identify potential applicants.

A great starting point for building these collaborations is reaching out to the TRIO or Student Support Services office at your local college campus. Let them know that you have residential summer positions available and that you’d love to partner and support students in need of summer housing and employment. You can also reach out to the campus career center, counseling center, or departments that may have students interested in camp experience like education, social work, marketing, business, or the arts. Lastly, you can reach out to the McKinney-Vento liaison within your local school district. This staff person works directly with students experiencing homelessness and can likely share the information with their graduating seniors. 

These collaborations hold the promise of providing more young adults experiencing homelessness with the opportunity to experience working at camp, while also allowing camps to benefit from the unique contributions of these remarkable young adults. 

This blog was written on behalf of Project Real Job, whose purpose is to support camps in their efforts to recruit, hire, and retain staff.

Photo courtesy of Jordyn Roark

Jordyn Roark holds a master’s degree in social work from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and currently resides in Northern Virginia. Jordyn has dedicated her personal and professional life to serving youth and young adults experiencing homelessness, ensuring that they can get to and through higher education. Using her own story of youth and young adult homelessness, Jordyn has traveled the country providing keynotes and training to young people, organizations, and professionals on the barriers that students experiencing homelessness face and tips for increasing their access to higher education. Jordyn serves as the director of SchoolHouse Connection's Youth Leadership and Scholarship Program, which is a national scholarship program that supports students experiencing homelessness.