My friend Neil and I were talking about camp the other day and he said that when he was looking for a camp for his son years ago he only got to meet the camp Directors. While it may have been somewhat helpful, he knew that ultimately it would be his son’s counselors who were going to really impact his son’s experience at camp.
What my friend said is true. As Director of Odyssey Teen Camp, I try my best to hire the forty or so most caring, mature, responsible, intelligent, kind, and fun people that I can. Then we come together for a week before the campers arrive to create a community based on kindness, inclusion, safety, cooperation, vulnerability, trust, and fun, which we can model for every teen who comes to camp.
“Ultimately our mission is to bombard every teen who comes with loving kindness.”
A camp counselor’s job is not easy. The days are long. At Odyssey, counselors not only have the job of creating a great culture in their cabin, they also lead all of our camp activities. For most counselors just getting to camp is not that easy and they have to arrange their lives to come and work in the Berkshires for five weeks for very little money.
Why do they do it?
They come work at camp because they want to help teenagers have fun and feel good about themselves. They know how confusing and hard it felt for them when they were teenagers to feel good about themselves and their world.
Many of them have an idea for the kind of support they could have used from someone who was maybe a few years older to help them navigate their way through middle and high school more gracefully, (and maybe even with more of a sense of humor). They very much want to be that person for our campers.
You would think it would be hard for a young person in their twenties to put their own needs on the back burner for five weeks and to make the needs of their campers their number one priority, but you would be surprised how many counselors do exactly that every summer.
Support is key
During staff training we try to give the counselors skills and tools that will help them be great counselors. We bring in some therapists who are great at helping teenagers, but ultimately staff training really starts the day the campers come. While camp is in session, we have an experienced team of therapists and leaders who help the counselors deal with whatever is coming up for their campers and often for themselves.
We all have things we need to figure out and ways we need to grow and that is certainly true of the young people who come to work at camp, but I am always amazed and grateful to see how good they are at a very tough job.
Sage advice from a veteran director
When I started camp an older Director told me that …
“The counselors are there for the kids and the Director is there for the counselor.”
At the time, I thought not me, I’m going to be there for everyone, and while I try my best and I do get to know certain campers better than others, he was right, the counselors play a key role in the campers’ experience.
It’s hard to put into words what makes a great counselor. Sometimes I think that I know exactly what someone will be like as a counselor when I hire him, but the truth is that is not always the case. I think there is a paradox to most every quality in being a great camp counselor.
A counselor has to be willing to make the teens their number one priority, but they also have to take care of themselves sometimes so they do not get overly stressed or have “burnout.”
A counselor has to be hyper vigilant about camp rules and the safety of everyone at camp, but they also need to be able to relax and let some things slide.
A counselor needs to take the concerns of their campers very seriously, but they also need to not get too caught up in the drama that comes with the territory of working at a camp with 180 teenagers.
A counselor needs to plan for their activities and also know that things change all the time and they need to be flexible enough to go with the flow.
A counselor needs to want to help every teenager who comes to camp, and understand that they have their own limitations and will not always be able to reach every camper as well as they would like.
A great counselor needs to walk that fine line between being both a friend and support for their campers, while also being an authority presence who is ultimately in charge of each campers’ well being.
You can see why it is a difficult job. I feel grateful that so many young people want to take that challenge and come be counselors at camp. Ultimately I hire those people who I believe have the highest intentions, knowing that we will all have our challenges along the way, but those intentions can carry us a long way and help a lot of teenagers to have life changing experiences at camp.