Reflections on Hiring Camp Staff

Jeanne Muellerleile
November 2014

Hiring young women and men who are prepared to put campers' needs before their own is by far the most important thing I do each year. With year-round programs offering short-term residential experiences in the spring and week-long sessions in the summer, fall, and winter seasons — plus 23 respite care weekends and 23 camper trips, the hiring process is indeed a year-round adventure.

Working with children and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities in a camp setting is an extremely rewarding and satisfying way to spend a season. The magic of camp is certainly evident as campers connect with one another as well as staff. Many lifelong friendships develop. Working and playing with others in a 24-hour-a-day environment allows one to develop genuine and authentic relationships. There's nothing like solving a scheduling problem, behavioral challenge, or middle-of-the-night crisis to create lasting bonds.

Job Inquiry

Choosing who will most likely succeed in this unique environment is often a tricky task. First and foremost, it is my responsibility to paint an accurate picture of each position. This can be done with the response to each job inquiry. I send the same information to all who inquire — highlighting the nature of the work, the long hours, and the basic qualifications needed. I am certain many who inquire choose not to apply after reading about the cabin duties, behavioral challenges, and personal care needs of many campers. This is intentional. I do not want to waste their time or mine if the thought of helping campers with personal hygiene, positively interacting with campers who are having a meltdown, or signing on for a 13-week summer sounds like too much. We all know this work is not for everyone.

Interview

Once I receive an application and read it thoroughly, I am able to detect if the applicant spent sufficient time to complete it thoughtfully. The narrative section of the application helps me determine the applicant's self-awareness and goals. If I think these responses might match the challenges and rewards of a camp job, I offer an interview. A personal interview is ideal for everyone involved. The applicant gets a chance to see camp and get a feel for the interviewer — just as I, the interviewer, have an opportunity to evaluate the likelihood of a good match. If a personal interview is not possible, an interview via Skype® is the next best option. Seeing each other helps build rapport and allows the interviewer to better assess communication and people skills.

After each applicant views the camp DVD, the interview begins. I ask each prospect the same list of questions and do all I can to encourage him or her to do most of the talking. Open-ended questions are a great way to start. I also like questions that help me get to know the applicant a bit, such as, "What motivates you?" or "What is the best decision you have ever made?" These questions typically make the applicant ponder his or her answer a bit. I often hear, "Oh, let me think about that." I learn a great deal about the applicant from these inquiries. Maturity, work ethic, and goals inevitably become apparent as the applicant answers these questions. I also ask the applicants scenario questions that simulate challenging job situations. I ask how they would handle a specific camper behavior situation.

I also present to them a scenario that illustrates a staff conflict and ask how they would proceed. The last situation concerns a personal care issue. These scenario questions paint a more accurate picture for the applicants. If they are new to the camp world or have limited experience with people with disabilities, I often learn much about their confidence level, common sense, and critical-thinking skills. At the same time, we are building a rapport, which helps me determine a bit more about their people skills.

Explaining the Job

When I explain the job, it's imperative that I cover in detail just how long the hours are each day, week, and month of the season. If the applicant is new to camp work, I dare say he or she may not realize the commitment involved. The last thing I want is for a new staffer to say, "I didn't realize I'd have to work this many hours," after the first week of camp. Cabin duty is one of the most challenging aspects of the job. At Camp Courageous, staff live in dormitories and take turns spending the night in the cabins. I realize this is quite different from most other camps. Being a year-round program, these few hours at night when staff are not on duty are essential for them to regroup and have some personal free time. We would not have year-round counselors choose to stay for two, three, or four years if they were required to spend every night in the cabin.

I also spend time explaining the camp's expectations. We all know camp is for the campers. At a camp for children and adults with disabilities, a successful staff must be extremely unselfish and people oriented to be happy. Patience is at a premium.

Naturally the rewards are phenomenal. We celebrate when a camper vocalizes for the first time as she does the super zip line or works up the courage to touch the rabbit. We beam when a camper brushes his teeth independently, agrees to share with a group mate, or initiates eye contact. We feel exhilarated when a camper makes it to the back of the 550-foot cave and then turns around and crawls back out. We triumph when a camper responds well to redirection as she exhibits pica behavior (tries to eat the inedible) — or when a camper with polydipsia (the urge to drink excessively) allows staff to keep him on track without behavioral outbursts. These are the successes for which we are most proud. Successful camp staff must be prepared to put others' needs before their own day after day after day.

The Tour

After giving the applicant plenty of time to ask questions, we have a tour. Much can be gleaned during the tour as applicants respond to the activities in session, the campers, and the facility. All year-round counselors must have a personal interview. Because many are from out-of-state, we make arrangements for them to spend the night at camp. They get a chance to join a group of campers either before or after their interview. This gives them a dose of reality before committing to a year-round position, and it helps me because veteran staff are with the interviewees for an extended time and can share their impression as well as a possible recommendation on the prospective staff member.

My Homework

After the interview it is time for me to do my homework. Information is sent in for the background checks and I start contacting references. I firmly believe I get much more information if I call the references as opposed to e-mailing them a reference form. While it is very time consuming to call, I usually get the references checked more quickly and thoroughly, which means I can get back to the applicant faster. I use the same form for each reference check — asking references to rate the applicant on a list of qualities such as patience, ability to work with others, initiative, communication skills, and more. This objective evaluation supplements the subjective narratives shared during the in-person interview. I end each reference check with, "Is there anything else you think I should know?" It is fascinating what people will say. Some share more accolades about the applicant; others share pertinent information about challenges he or she has had at other jobs. I often get very valuable information from this last exit question.

Our procedures require three reference checks including previous employment or volunteer work. One of those must be a related reference. Yes, several years ago our insurance company asked us to check with one relative. I was surprised, yet must admit that occasionally this reference provides valuable information. I actually may not hire someone based on remarks made by the relative. However, the vast majority of relative references are glowing, and frankly, I do not count it as one of the three. Often I have five or six references on a single applicant. I find it is worth the extra effort to be thorough in regards to each hiring decision.

Returning Staff

I encourage qualified staff to return by providing a recruiting bonus to all summer staff members who successfully recruit a new summer counselor who completes the season. Also, returning summer staff earn a bonus when they complete their commitment. Frequently, volunteers or interns have become salaried staff. Often seasonal staff will become year-round counselors. We also make every effort to pay staff a competitive salary for this very demanding position.

International Staff

I limit international staff to 0–5 percent, depending on the volume of the applications from Americans. I do this because the language barriers often make it difficult for them to communicate with campers with special needs. I also find I have difficulty painting an accurate picture of job tasks, such as assisting campers with daily living skills, when the applicant does not speak English well. This can result in a poor match. That said, I have hired some wonderful international staff members who have become year-round staffers. Each situation must be treated individually.

The Effort Makes the Difference

I make every effort to hire individuals who will flourish in our camp environment. It is a disservice to the applicant as well as the camp to rush this process. If a staffer does not mesh well with others, finds the responsibilities too vast, and generally flounders even with extra assistance, it is a challenge for all involved. It is impossible to predict the future, and I never know for sure until the next season begins if a new staffer will be successful. But I have come to the conclusion that the effort I put forth in selecting the best applicants makes all the difference in the quality of the campers' care, supervision, and program. As we are all aware, it is the camp counselor and activity specialist who have the greatest impact on the campers.

We want all camp staff to leave Camp Courageous feeling more confident in their behavior management skills, personal care techniques, and decision-making strategies. We are successful when staff leave camp feeling more sure of themselves when presented with a challenge. This can-do attitude will no doubt serve them well. I am convinced staff who have worked at camp become better teachers, therapists, and parents, which, in turn, makes the world a better place for us all. No wonder we love our work!

Jeanne Muellerleile is the camp director at Camp Courageous in Iowa. With bachelor's degrees in special education and psychology and a master's degree in experiential education, she has been involved in camping for 40 years. She can be reached at jmuellerleile@campcourageous.org.

Photo courtesy of CAMP, Gahanna, Ohio.

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