When I was a camp counsellor, my father, the camp director, used to say that counsellors were like elastic bands: You take a young person, who at home can’t remember to feed the cat, and you give them 10 children to look after. Suddenly – as if by magic – young people who can barely look after themselves become hyper-responsible. They stretch!
I am always awed by the way counsellors talk about their campers. They say “my campers.” They sound like parents. These really are their kids, for whom they feel love, for whom they take full responsibility. This is true at summer camps everywhere, because when we place great responsibility in front of a young person, when we say to them that the children are counting on them, and when we put some helpful tools in their hands, they tend to rise to the occasion. This is part of empathy, an almost-universal human capacity.
Think about the job: At sleepaway summer camp, where the kids never go home, these counsellors, who are themselves adolescents, have to take care of the kids 24/7. They have no choice. If a child has a need, there’s nobody else to meet it.
This comes as a shock to most counsellors at first. Try as we may, no camp director can prepare someone for this: From washing sheets when a small child peed the bed to breaking up a fight, or consoling a teen about their parents’ recent divorce, they face no end of demands. It’s relentless, taking care of a group of children all day every day. A small minority bail on the challenge, but most grow into it.
A few years ago at camp, a staff member was making a speech about why he kept coming back to camp. He recalled his first week on staff, age 17. He was on Night Duty. It was 11 pm and he was doing a round of cabins. As he walked into a cabin to check on the kids, a kid on a top bunk puked. Some of it landed on the kid in the bottom bunk. The young counsellor then saw a sleepwalker walk by that bed. The sleepwalker slipped in the mess on the floor and was lying in it.
Our young counsellor went to get Senior Staff Night Duty. Every camp has that person. That person said: “Don’t worry, the counsellor in this cabin has to clean it up.”
Our young counsellor said: “This is my cabin.”
And so, in his speech, he said that he grew up that night. He said that the apparently simple act of cleaning puke matured him beyond measure. He spoke eloquently about how the mere act of taking responsibility – any responsibility – introduced him to a competent and wonderful part of himself that he’d never met. He felt so proud of himself. It changed him.
To do the job, counsellors learn skills, some in pre-camp training, which most camps do. Camps teach staff to get kids through homesickness, navigate their friendships, do camp activities, and provide the caring ear that children need. Some skills they have to learn on the job, when they face challenges and they just cope. With their in-built motivation to support “their” campers, they struggle to help, whatever the need.
Counsellors gain life skills that make them more successful at work and more able life partners. They become team leaders. This is the great gift of being a camp counsellor, that young people stretch and grow into the person every camper wants in their corner, rain or shine.
Joanne Kates is Director of Camp Arowhon in Algonquin Park