From Camper to Counselor: What Footprint Will You Leave?

Kim Aycock, MST
May 2015
If this is your first year receiving a paycheck at camp (no matter how small) instead of paying tuition, then this article is for you. New and veteran staff will also benefit from having a better understanding of the transition that occurs from coming to camp as a camper to becoming a vital part of the staff team. There are different names for this group of staff — ranging from junior counselors to assistant counselors to counselors-in-training (CIT). For the purpose of this article, the term junior staff will be used when referring to those of you who spent one or more years as a camper and now are joining the ranks of camp staff for the very first time.
 
You are probably experiencing a wide array of emotions from excitement to apprehension (and everything in between). On one hand, you are ready to take on the challenge of being a counselor, yet you are also contemplating what it will really be like and if you will be able to handle the enormous responsibility.
 
It is normal to feel nervous or anxious about your role this summer. Remember that you went through the application/hiring process just like the rest of the staff, and even though you are junior in age, you are senior in your knowledge of camp. Many of you have been at camp since you were in elementary school, experienced the great and not-so-great counselors, signed up for just about every activity that was offered, and participated in numerous Color Wars or Camp Olympics. While being a counselor is a new role for you, there is comfort in knowing where everything is at camp and being familiar with the daily schedule. There is a lot to learn, but you know more than you think you do.
 
Before the first group of campers arrives, I recommend you take a moment to reflect on the breadth of camp experience you have and how it can positively shape the counselor you are about to become. Your path as a staff member has yet to be mapped out. What footprint will you leave at the end of the summer? How will campers and other staff remember you?
 
Let’s face it; you have firsthand experience with the best counselors in your history of being at camp. You know exactly which counselors made a difference in your overall experience and those whose presence (or lack thereof) contributed minimally to your growth and development. While it is not productive to bash any counselors who were less than stellar, now is a good time to contemplate your personal experiences with them. Learn from any shortcomings or bad choices you witnessed, and set yourself up for success with the campers in your care.
 

Footprint Questions

What will it take to be like your favorite counselors? What did they do or say that made an impact on you and affected who you are today? What will you do to influence a camper’s experience that will trigger him or her to want to come back next summer?
 
Because you have vast knowledge in so many program areas, use the best of what you learned and pass that along to this group of campers. You did not become proficient at horseback riding by standing outside the barn and just looking at the horses. You did not become a good sailor by putting on a lifejacket and then sitting on the dock. You did not create a cool project you were proud of in arts and crafts by having the counselor do it for you. Being a camp counselor is not a spectator sport.
 
What did the best counselors do to help you progress and excel in the various activities you chose over the course of your camper career? How will you pass along your passion for a particular activity? How will you react when the program director asks you to teach an activity that is not on the top of your list because there are no other viable options when making staff assignments?
 
Given the opportunity, you probably can chant camp cheers in your sleep, or maybe you are the camper who lost his/her voice every year when Olympics rolled around because you were totally into it. Because you have participated in almost every aspect of each camp event, you are vital to passing along these important traditions to new campers and staff this summer. Your enthusiasm and energy are critical to the success of the highly anticipated Air Band Contest or game of Capture the Flag, even if you have gone through them many times over and will experience them again repeatedly this summer. Maybe this year you can offer a suggestion to add a new twist to Air Band or you can grab the hand of a younger camper so he or she can experience the thrill of stealing the flag from enemy territory.
 
What made these events special when you were a camper? How can you return the favor for this year’s campers? How will you involve those campers who are reluctant to participate?
 
When you put on your staff shirt or jacket for the first time this summer, know that with your new status a shift in thinking must also take place. Granted, you won’t have to raise your hand to get permission to use the restroom or be questioned when you decide to go for a run during your free period. However, as a camper you grew accustomed to having counselors accommodate your needs ahead of their own. Now you will be expected to put campers first. Think about that counselor who gave you his or her full attention and really took an interest in what you had to say. Your footprint will depend on whether or not you seek out those opportunities with campers even when it is tempting to gravitate to your staff friends.
 
As a young child, you had no idea about the behind-the-scenes planning and organization that was needed to put on Carnival Day. You just showed up, everything was in place, and you remember having a lot of fun. Now you have the opportunity to create the magic and wonder so the campers have an amazing time each and every day. You will also face circumstances as a counselor that will be anything but glamorous. Maybe it is your turn to clean the changing area at the pool, get up early for a week straight to set the tables in the dining hall, or be awakened in the middle of the night because a camper is not feeling well. Your footprint will be determined by whether or not you choose to put on a smile and bring a positive attitude to each situation.

The Hardest Job You’ll Ever Love

Kris Campbell, assistant director at Camp Illahee in North Carolina, accurately summarizes the feelings of many camp directors when she says, “It is best if you are returning to camp this summer because you love working with kids and not because you love camp. Just because you love camp doesn’t mean you will be a good counselor. Being a counselor is a job, and it is going to be hard.” Being a camp counselor is perhaps the hardest job you will ever love.
 
Know that you are not expected to do this work alone. Take advantage of pre-camp orientation training to learn as much as possible about your role this summer. Listen attentively, engage fully, and ask questions. A great counselor is not afraid to seek help when needed. Do not hesitate to ask the leadership staff, fellow counselors, the medical team, or support staff for advice or assistance. Take any feedback you receive as an opportunity to learn and grow.
 
Jason Sebell, director of Camps Kenmore and Evergreen in New Hampshire, works directly with the junior staff at his camp. During the years leading up to them becoming staff members, Jason is considered to be the campers’ summertime “Dad.” He wants the junior staff to feel comfortable approaching him just as they did when they were campers. Your directors are invested in you and believe in you — they have witnessed you growing up at camp. They have seen you at your best and at your worst. They want you to do well and succeed.
 
The rest of the staff will ignore the “junior” part of your name if you earn their respect. You can do this by taking initiative, supporting your co-counselors, and carrying your weight. Do not wait to be asked. You are a team with the other staff — everyone’s load is lightened when each person does his or her part. Communication with your co-counselors is key. Develop a plan together and discuss any issues that arise immediately. Do your fair share by pitching in to get camp ready for the campers’ arrival, helping to write camper reports, and happily doing whatever job comes your way.
 
And last but not least, the choices you make during your time off greatly impact your performance and ability to leave a positive footprint. Your first steps as a staff member are about to take place; how will you be remembered this summer?
“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for awhile and leave footprints on our hearts. And we are never, ever the same.” – Unknown
 

Straight Talk from Junior Counselors

Former campers and soon-to-be junior counselors Jess Sorkin from Camp Woodland and Michael Pommer of Towering Pines (both near Eagle River, Wisconsin), were interviewed to find out what is on their mind prior to their first summer as staff members.
 
What are you most looking forward to as a junior counselor?
  • (Jess) Getting to work with the younger kids and teaching swimming lessons.
  • (Michael) The new experience of being a leader in a different way and testing what I learned last year as CIT.
 
What are you nervous or anxious about as you transition from camper to counselor?
  • (Jess) Being a good role model and being “on” for the entire season.
  • (Michael) The huge responsibility of being a staff member.
 
What do you anticipate will be different about being a counselor from being a camper?
  • (Jess) Not having “normal” conversations (little kids often bring up the weirdest or most random topics to talk about) and having to watch what I say in front of the campers.
  • (Michael) Making sure everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing and are safe.
 
What do you foresee will be the hardest part about being a counselor?
  • (Jess) Helping new campers feel comfortable and learn the routines.
  • (Michael) Properly dealing with misbehavior, negative attitudes, and homesickness.
 
How would you like the senior counselors to support you in this new role?
  • (Jess) Let us do some things — don’t do it all for us.
  • (Michael) Give help if we need it, but don’t treat us as if we don’t know what we are doing.
 
First year 2014 junior staff members Racquel Reitmeyer and Ryan Bickford, also from Woodland and Towering Pines, were asked to reflect on their recent experience and to pass along any advice that may provide insight as you transition from camper to counselor.
 
What was the best part about being a junior counselor?
  • (Racquel) Leading activities makes you feel important because the campers look up to you.
  • (Ryan) Being in charge and having the opportunity to learn on a daily basis.
 
Describe any challenges you faced.
  • (Racquel) Dealing with interactions between girls in the cabin (drama).
  • (Ryan) Motivating older campers and making sure everyone is involved and having fun.
 
What advice would you pass along to next year’s junior staff?
  • (Racquel) Don’t get frustrated, talk things out with your co-counselors, and be patient.
  • (Ryan) Watch the more experienced counselors and learn from their example, be open to learning multiple ways of doing things (the same strategy may not work for each camper), and good luck — being a staff member is a lot of work, but a lot of fun!
 
What do you wish you would have known that would have made a difference in your experience?
  • (Racquel) Learning how to deal with cabin dynamics and how to get campers to listen.
  • (Ryan) That it is okay to ask for help and that you are not expected to have all the answers.
 
Did anything take you by surprise?
  • (Racquel) That it was really nice to have some time to myself each day (and take a shower).
  • (Ryan) I never realized how much work it is to be a counselor and that it is important to keep your focus on the campers 100 percent of the time.
 
 
Photo courtesy of Camp Rockmont, Black Mountain, North Carolina.
 
Kim Aycock, MST, has more than 25 years of experience blending the skills of a master teacher with the knowledge of a seasoned camp expert. She trains camp staff at all levels and speaks professionally at regional and national conferences. More information can be found on her website: www.kimaycock.com. Kim may be contacted at 601-832-6223 or info@kimaycock.com.