At the request of Ottawa Parenting Times, Catherine Ross, Communications officer for CCA, wrote this article to describe for parents the qualities of a camp counselor. Share this with your staff to motivate them to be the best they can be!
Across the country, thousands of eager, former campers are counting the days until summer camp begins. Some new campers may be more anxious than excited as day one draws near. Once camp begins, the one person who will influence the experience of each camper the most is the camp counselor.
The director is essential; the maintenance staff is useful; the nurse is important (should you need her) and nobody would stick around for long without the cook. But the camp counselor is the one with the closest, most consistent contact with the campers. As one renowned camp director, Elizabeth Raymer, described it, “This group of leaders determines the success or failure of the entire enterprise…The most beautiful site with elegant buildings and a superabundance of up-to-date equipment is useless in the hands of an inept staff.” Her expectations were clear: if you aspire to be a camp counselor, you have to be good. Your campers deserve your very best.
Camp directors diligently read resumes, identify candidates worthy of an interview then check references. With care and thoroughness, they select a group of young people whom they believe to be worthy of emulation by impressionable young campers. Once on site, they continue to train, supervise and evaluate. One camp staff alumna who assisted the director with interviewing prospective camp counselors for the 2015 season marveled at the qualifications, personalities, experiences and volunteer service of the candidates. My own experience concurs with her conclusions – young people who choose to be camp counselors are anything but average.
The summer my eighteen-year-old son joined our staff as a canoe trip leader, I had a rude awakening. For years, without a second thought, I had sent other people’s young adults into the wilderness to care for our campers. Sending my own son forced me to think more carefully about the huge burden I was placing on these young leaders’ shoulders. I expected them to travel for days on the assigned route, feed, shelter and care for a group of campers relying on the bare necessities, their experience, judgment and skills. They accepted the challenge without hesitation. And they never disappointed me! Despite the rattlesnake sunning on the portage path, a group of drunken fishermen wanting to share their site or a young camper with abdominal pain who required evacuation in the night, they always made the right decision and brought everyone home safe and sound. With one exception , they always arrived on time. Once when the lake was too rough to cross, they patiently remained on shore until the wind died down thus forcing them to arrive home late – but with good reason. Again, they made the right decision.
That summer I started a new tradition. At the end of the season, I wrote to my camp staff parents to share with them my renewed admiration of their offspring based on their achievements that summer.
The campers get the last word. As a Board Member for the Kids in Camp Charity, I recently received a summary of comments from the campers that the charity had financially assisted in 2014. Their remarks confirmed that counselors continue to do an awesome job. Payton tells us, “I learned how to do tricks on a wake board…my counselors were amazing and so chill.” Veronica, a special needs camper reports, “If something is too hard or too much, I can tell my counselors and it doesn’t mean I’m lazy.” Emily confirms, “My counselors were really nice, sweet and kind and very funny.” Tal loved his counselors, “Cameron and Shimon are very cool and they helped us with problems if we got into fights. I am so lucky I came to this camp.”
Summer camp and my camp counsellors have made me who I am today. The summers that I spent in the forest and near a lake, thanks to the leadership of my counsellors, allowed me to experience some of the most influential and defining moments of my life.
Not everybody can be a camp counsellor. It takes a special kind of leadership. When I was fifteen, I went on my first canoe trip in Algonquin Park, Ontario. The only other people on that trip were six other guys and two counsellors. We spent hot days paddling the swampiest, buggiest rivers and rainy days portaging the wettest, muddiest trails. At first it sucked. On the third day into our seven day trip, I had had enough. We were portaging up a giant hill, and halfway up, I threw the canoe I was carrying down to the ground and sat down in the mud. My camp counsellor, who was further up the trail, came back to me, and asked me what was wrong. I told him that I couldn’t carry the canoe anymore, to which he said, “Ok, but the nine of us, together, can find a way to do it.” And sure enough, I and three others who had already finished the portage took turns carrying that canoe to the other end, and we continued our trip from there.
It was this simple lesson in teamwork and group problem solving that inspired me to be a camp counsellor and canoe trip leader years later. Over the course of six summers, I guided over twenty separate canoe trips involving almost one hundred and fifty young men and women. It is often a thankless job. As camp counsellors and trip leaders, we are entrusted with the safety of people’s most precious assets, their children. In addition to dealing with the everyday issues of having children away from home: bed-wetting, bullying, homesickness, cuts and scrapes, or the challenges of growing up into young adulthood: relationships, self-confidence, identity and self-esteem, camp counsellors are expected to inspire confidence, resolve conflicts, care about the environment and be effective leaders, not just to the campers, but to their peers.
Camp counsellors work longer hours than any other ‘average’ job, and get paid less to do it. As a camp counsellor at an overnight camp or perhaps on a canoe trip, one does not work nine to five, Monday to Friday. In fact, it is more equivalent to the hours of being a full time parent. Camp counsellors are on call twenty-four hours a day to deal with any issues that may arise at night, and still have to wake up the next morning with a smile on their face. It is the equivalent to having a job where the requirements are working all day, every day, but only being paid for forty hours a week at minimum wage.
I still chose to be a camp counsellor. I did so because the personal satisfaction that I had was far greater than any monetary compensation I received. The skills that I have learned from camp, both as a camper from my counsellors and as a camp counsellor myself have influenced the way I am and the way I view the world. This experience has taught me not just that there is value in leading, teaching and inspiring others, but to do so without reward is the true meaning of leadership and service.
The counsellor on my first canoe trip could have just as easily taken that canoe I was carrying and brought it to the other end of the portage himself. He was more than capable. He could have also just as easily told me that I was “useless,” “weak” or “not part of the team” for not being able to take the canoe. But instead, he chose to allow me and the others on that trip to find a cooperative solution to our challenge.
There have been several times in my life when my non-camp friends and colleagues questioned why I would spend the summer at camp, when there are so many “better” jobs available for young people. However, none of these “better” jobs give the opportunities for broad professional development, nor do they give a sense of value and pride in work that camp does. Being a camp counsellor has brought out the best in me and has taught me how to deal with the worst in others, and while this is my experience at camp, my non-camp acquaintances don’t seem to understand this. Maybe, at the end of the day, they never will. But I think as camp people, we all have a responsibility to share our camp experiences, if anything, to encourage the types of positive thinking and learning that camp has taught us.
It all starts with a story – “Let me tell you about the time…”
For me it started when I was a camper. I loved campfires most of all – our camp had a campfire program each night. We only went to camp for one week and five times over that week we would all sit around the campfire circle and sing the songs, watch the skits and listen to the stories.
The stories caught my imagination and took me away to another place. By the flickering light of the campfire I listened to the camp staff share their stories. I was in the mountains and the mining town when I first heard the story of The Shooting of Dan McGrew; I was on the island as they told about a shipwreck; I was caught by surprise when the twist came. Storytelling is magical and should be an important part of the camp experience.
When we want to pass on some of the history of our camps, do we write it down and then pass the sheets around to all the campers so they can read about ‘Chief’ or ‘the one that got away’? No. We share these experiences in the form of stories. We use oral tradition to pass on the feeling, the emotion and the gravitas of the experience. Stories that we hear last long after other camp memories have faded. Our time at camp is remembered and shared through stories. Your campers go home each summer and tell thousands of stories about camp.
Storytelling was once an integral part of many camp programs and somewhere along the line it has faded. Building a tradition of storytelling within your camp culture can add a wealth of benefits. Stories help to teach lessons and morals that simple instruction cannot. Stories are one of the best ways to help a message stay with campers and often times campers will continue to think about that story long after a simple message would have faded.
How do we create a tradition of storytelling in our camp settings? A few simple suggestions:
1. Start telling stories – this sounds almost too simple, but if we don’t tell them we will not build that tradition
2. Tell, do not read – very few stories have to be read word for word. Help your camp staff make a story their own, change it, adapt it and make it something that they will be remembered for. Reading is story-time, not storytelling.
3. Interact with the Audience – choose stories that can include the campers with sounds and actions. Repetition in stories helps with this. The best part about the counsellor who told, by memory, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, is that he had sounds and actions associated with each character which made the campers hang on each word with anticipation to be ready to do their job.
4. Make the resources available – books with short stories should be available (Stories for the Campfire – Hanson, Roemmich). Have your staff come to camp ready with a story and get them to tell them during training – this helps them with public speaking and helps you to find the amazing storytellers that you might not have known existed.
Storytelling is an art that can be learned. Storytelling needs to be encouraged at camp. Storytelling is what we do each day when we try to explain why a child should go to camp. How good are you at storytelling?
We are pleased to announce the second annual Camp T-Shirt Day.
Encourage your campers, staff members, and others in your camp community to join the excitment on Wednesday, May 1 as we start the countdown to summer camp.
Dr. Roberta Bondar is a Canadian icon most widely known for her journey aboard Discovery as the world’s first neurologist and Canada’s first woman in space. Her achievements are outstanding in her varied careers as a scientist, medical doctor, astronaut, author, environmental educator and professional landscape and nature photographer.
In summer 2012, The Roberta Bondar Foundation partnered with the Canadian Camping Association to launch the Summer Camp Bondar Challenge, piloting the experience in 5 summer camps. Modeled after the successful school-based Bondar Challenge, it focused on campers using a camera as a tool and gateway to learning about the environment. Campers are challenged to capture an image in their environment that relates to an aspect of biodiversity and then write a statement to accompany their photo. The program fuses the art of photography with a knowledge of science and promotes a lifelong love of nature, protection of our environment and global citizenship. The winning images and statements will travel with The Foundation’s Travelling Exhibition.
You can view the 2012 winning images and accompanying artist’s statements on the Bondar Challenge page of The Roberta Bondar Foundation website at www.therbf.org.
Your camp can join the Bondar Challenge in summer 2013.
The 2013 trainer registration fee of $25 per trainer includes:
Camps agree that:
Individual CCA member camps can apply on-line through The Roberta Bondar Foundation website.
Applications to be a participating camp open March 1,2013 and must be received by 20:00 EST April 30, 2013 to be considered.
In l972 I moved to Toronto from California and got a summer job at Bolton Camp. It was run by Family Services and the kids were from the poorest parts of the city. Although I had spent time in a California jail after protesting the Vietnam war, been bonked on the head by a French cop in Paris after the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, hitchhiked the West Coast many times, and studied Homer and Chaucer in university, none of my varied political and scholarly experiences had prepared me for my miniature lords of misrule. Luckily, I discovered, my semi-feral eight-year-old boys loved to listen to fairy tales – the longer the better.
One night, as we sat around the campfire, I had a revelation. The counsellor was spinning a yarn about Old Man Bolton. He was our local axe-murdering ghost who, after chopping everybody up, had escaped into the forest surrounding the camp. There, the counsellor quietly told us, Old Man Bolton was still limping around culling stray campers.
I was amazed to see that my boys had been transformed into the world’s greatest listeners. A window of time opened, and I understood that my lads hearing summer camp ghost stories were no different than the audience of Greek royalty who heard Homer chant the mighty epics. Even in 1973 the story fire was still burning, the art of storytelling was still alive, and humans – especially my grubby, ardent, hero-hungry boys – had not lost our passion for word-of-mouth stories.
I was hooked. The problem was, although I wanted to learn the storyteller’s mysterious art and even had my own captive audience, I was painfully shy, extremely forgetful and didn’t know any stories.
So I did what people have always done in case of emergency: I went to the library. On my days off, I would drive down to Boys and Girls House and come back to camp with a stack of stories, which I would read aloud at night.
One day that summer, the moment of truth arrived. I’d learned a folk tale in my head and tried telling it to my boys without the book. It began well enough. “Once upon a time there was a king and a queen, and the king went blind. He called his three sons and said, ‘Go find a cure for my blindness.’ ” The first two princes sallied forth, but the third, a lazy, good-for-nothing lad, went out into the garden to nap under his favourite apple tree.
I was just about to tell my boys how this third prince has a hero’s dream, when Frankie, my chief troublemaker, decided it was a good moment to let loose a great and cabin-shaking fart. Pandemonium ensued. I was so mad that, breaking every rule of camp counselling and child-tending protocols, I threw him out of the cabin. Then I continued the story as Frankie banged on the door and yelled that Old Man Bolton was going to chop him up.
Despite the commotion, the remaining boys heard how the third prince listened to his dream, rode forth on the quest-road, conquered evil, got help from his horse of power, married the fairy firebird, and cured his father’s blindness. It’s a hell of a story, and my boys – except Frankie – spent the next day retelling it to each other and trying to spot stray firebirds in the woods.
I didn’t know it then, but I know now: the listener is the hero of the story. Frankie was the third prince! He was the one who most needed to hear the tale. All the daydreamers, the kids who get sent to the office each day, the unregarded kids from the poorest parts of town – and, yes, even that brat who makes rude noises instead of listening politely – all may have the qualities of a hero, if only we can see it in them.
After that summer, I filled my head with folktales and set out on my storyteller’s quest. As for Frankie, I look for him in every audience. I still owe him a fairy tale.