My oldest and dearest friend was my counselor at camp when I was 14. And not an easy 14. I was deep in the slough of my parents’ acrimonious divorce. Our cabin was not easy, we liked to rebel, and we didn’t make anything easy on her.
This young woman, who didn’t ask to work with us – and in fact lobbied the camp director (my dad) not to put her with us – became the linchpin who saved me. Every morning at 6 sharp, she stood over my bed and said: “Katesie, get UP.” We would then get in our own separate canoes and till breakfast she would coach me in solo canoeing manoeuvres. But really, canoeing wasn’t the core of what Barbara was teaching me.
Canoeing was a metaphor that she used to bring out the leader in me, the confidence that she believed was lurking under my surface, the power to make good choices, to do good and do well.
I assumed for years that the consequences of her gift to me were all on my side. But I now understand that 19-year-old Barbara got as good as she gave. I have heard it from literally hundreds of camp staff and former staff over the years. They talk about their campers changing their lives.
What happens when you put a young person, who’s maybe (or maybe not) had a year of university in charge of a group of kids 24/7? When it’s on them to get 10 kids up every morning, get them to breakfast on time, set and clear their table, be quiet during announcements, make their bed, tidy their area and do their cabin chore? And that’s only till 9:30 in the morning. There’s the whole rest of the day still to go.
Camp counselors are still kids themselves. You might still be waking them up in the morning. At home they aren’t likely taking much responsibility – heck, most of us parents are grateful when our offspring make it through high school with a good enough average to get into a decent university. We all know what they’re doing at university – and it’s not looking out for others.
The magical effect of taking responsibility for others is shockingly powerful on a young person’s sense of who they are. First off, they know they (have to be) a role model. For the first time in their lives, young camp counselors get catapulted into having a profound affect on somebody else. They didn’t think about this up front. They came back to camp to be with their friends and get a tan, and maybe a girl/boyfriend, and all of a sudden they find out that these kids look up to them, way up.
And that those kids will follow them anywhere. Which means that where they lead them matters. A lot. This is a shocking new feeling of power – the influence they have over a group of young ones. When they manage to comfort a desperately homesick child, or encourage a camper who’s afraid of heights to try the zipline, or support the new perseverance of a windsurfing beginner who finally gets it, they’re making a difference in somebody’s life.
This isn’t about s’mores and rock, paper, scissors and friendship bracelets – they’re the backdrop, the window-dressing. The meat of the matter is the hard stuff that camp counsellors do, that their job is from early morning till late at night. That the campers depend on them for so much, and they do more than live up to it.
Psychologist Michael Thompson says:
“Camp is important of the campers. And it is even more magical for the 19 year old. There is no other place in the world where that 19 year old gets the confidence that comes from being a leader, from teaching things to kids and being respected and loved for it .”
They rise to heights of support and generosity of spirit that they never knew they had, and they find deep rich parts of themselves that they could not have imagined – depth of caring, resources to dig in and never give up on a difficult child. And in so doing, they become someone different. They become that powerful and caring leader who their campers see in them. And that is the great gift they receive.
Maybe the counsellors grow even more than the campers....