An Open Letter to America’s Camp Counselors

As you likely heard during your application and interview process, you are about to start what may quite possibly be the most important job assignment you’ll ever have: assuming responsibility for the care and education of other people’s children.

For some, that might conjure up such images as sailing, canoeing, swimming and roasting marshmallows around a campfire at night. For others, scarier scenes might come to mind: short-sheeting beds or food fights in the cafeteria (not to worry – your camp likely doesn’t permit either).

Regardless, your experience will be unlike any you’ve had before … unless of course you’ve had the job, or perhaps have been a camper, before.

Either way, your campers and their parents will be looking to you to be more than simply a summer companion or babysitter. Their expectations are much higher! In their eyes you will be filling the vital roles of counselor, instructor, coach, advisor, friend and role model. Perhaps most important, you will be their mentor (more on that later).

Over the years, I have been on the receiving end of parental expectations and they are many: communicate information; have a sense of humor; clarify what you hope to see from them; be relaxed; set a good example; show leadership; have fun with the kids; discourage fowl language; teach fair play; supervise for safety; demonstrate knowledge about each camper; be fair; encourage kids to try new things; foster self-confidence; be patient; be vigilant!

And what about the kids?

It’s pretty simple. The campers say they want to have fun, make new friends and feel good about themselves! For a more granular look, I recommend you check out “A Place to Share: Dear Counselor” by Charlie Nicholas published in the May/June 2017 edition of Camping Magazine.

Back to that mentoring thing. In my May 2008 Camping Magazine article “Letters From My Campers: A Counselor's Guide to Mentoring Youth” I wrote, “Research … points out that young people themselves rank counselors as some of the most influential people in their lives – though the many letters from my campers that I have, over time, stuffed in an already overflowing file drawer tell a much more compelling story than do data points and pie charts.

“So, what do you look like in your new role as a mentor? According to more than 3,000 youth sampled … you are trustworthy, caring, understanding, respectful, helpful, dependable, fun, compassionate, and responsible.

“Are you? Find out for yourself by checking yes or no next to those attributes listed in the chart below.” The results will show you what you may need to work on!

Suffice it to say that you won’t have to do the self-improvement stuff alone. Your camp’s staff orientation, or counselor training, period will be stuffed with important information about children and how best to lead them. In fact, you may feel as though you’re “drinking from a fire hose” of information and start to get overwhelmed. The fact is that accreditation standards, along with national, state and local laws and regulations, mandate much of the content you will receive.

I’ve discovered a simple way to keep it all straight … and I shared it in my article “The Comeback Kid – Learning to Lead at Summer Camp,” coauthored by one of my campers, Benjamin Quincy.

Basically, it’s a way to create three overarching themes (or goals) under which you can store all that you will learn before, and after, the campers arrive.

1. Be a team player. Do your share of the work. Anticipate what needs to get done and do it without being asked. And pitch in to help others with their share when they are falling behind.

2. Be a good role model. If you set a good example for your peers and the campers, so much else of what is stressed during orientation will naturally fall into place.

3. Have fun. Teams that play together stay together. Plus, if the kids see you having fun, it is more likely that they will have fun as well.

I also shared some similarly sensible advice from Audrey Monke, co-owner/director of Gold Arrow Camp in Lakeshore, California. She suggests beginning with the end in mind, being a model employee, taking care of yourself and showing your campers, every day, that they are your number-one priority.

The counselor handbook at my camp references a description of a typical counselor in the 1950s: “The counselor should be the sort who enjoys rambling down a woodland path, lolling in the sun, or joining a group around a campfire.” My experience tells me that the job today is far more complex, and maybe even more demanding, than it was for counselors of yesteryear. What has stayed the same, however, is the extraordinary opportunity you will have to do extraordinary things with extraordinary people. It is truly a life-changing experience for those willing to try it!

My wish for you this summer is the same wish I have for my camp’s counselors: a lot of love, laughter and friendship. Good luck!

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