Being an overnight camp counselor is a demanding job, but it is also one of the most fun and rewarding.
"If you are a counselor, be thankful that you got that job," says Alex Heldman, who spent four summers as a counselor at Wisconsin's North Star Camp for Boys. "It's truly a once in a lifetime opportunity."
Camp is its own unique universe, and while each is distinctive, many share similar values. Understanding them is key to success.
Here are six tips for first-time overnight camp counselors:
"Adaptability is probably one of the most important skills you learn at camp," says Jill Tipograph, founder of the summer consultancy firm Everything Summer, which is based in New York City and offers personalized summer planning help for young people.
At camp, plans can change instantaneously. "If you had plan A, and plan A isn't going to work because it's raining, you have to immediately think of plan B," says Jessica Blumenfeld, who spent 13 summers working at Camp Thunderbird for Girls in Minnesota. At Thunderbird, flexibility is so paramount they even have a word for it: thunderflexing.
INVEST IN RELATIONSHIPS WITH CAMPERS
"Every single child is different and you have to treat them as such," says Heldman. Taking time to get to know each individual camper can go a long way.
Haley Umans, who spent five summers as a counselor at Lake of the Woods Camp for Girls, in Michigan, recommends going out of the way to build rapport with each camper in your cabin. The first few nights, for example, visit each camper at their bunk to check in.
She also says good counselors add fun and energy to simple things. Even the walk to the dining hall can be transformed into a silly dance or game.
Julian Michaels, a counselor for three summers at New Jersey's Cedar Lake Camp, advocates focusing on campers who seem to be having less fun.
"The easiest thing to do is focus your energy on the kids that are having the best time," he says. "They're the most fun. They want to interact with you, you want to interact with them." It is those who are not in your face, however, who often need the most attention.
EXPECT TO WEAR MANY HATS
"Expect to do anything that needs to be done, that's reasonable, besides what you were told you'd be doing," says Tipograph.
Being a counselor means being a team player. It's more than likely you'll be completing tasks beyond what you were hired for.
Camp is a 24/7 gig. Use your time off wisely.
"Make sure on your days off that you really do relax. Get out of the camp environment," says Tipograph, who encourages counselors to spend time off doing calming activities, like lying on the beach, rather than more energy-consuming pursuits.
Counselors live in a highly communal space, always surrounded by others. Even when it's not your time off, find time for yourself.
"Self-care is the most important part of being able to be a good camp counselor," says Shari Sigoloff, owner/director of Camp Thunderbird. Counselors, she says, must find time to read, exercise, draw, paint or do whatever typically helps them unwind. Getting enough sleep is also crucial.
PREPARE FOR COMMUNAL LIVING
Working at a summer camp means giving up a lot of privacy. For many, it's a great environment, one in which it's easy to form strong bonds quickly. Still, you need to be mentally prepared for this lifestyle.
"Being a camp counselor is a little bit like speed dating, getting married and having a family, all in a matter of a couple of weeks," says Sigoloff.
Strong communication skills are vital. Michaels suggests expressing your needs to your co-counselors early on — and listening to theirs — so you can best support one another.
EMBRACE THE SILLINESS
The more you allow yourself to be a little (or a lot) silly, the better role model you'll be — and the more fun you'll have.
"If you're going to camp, embrace it," says Michaels. Get super-excited about color wars and spirit days and anything else. Michaels says one of the most valuable skills camp gave him is "being able to be spirited for no reason other than being spirited."
Camp is about showing kids how great it feels to be yourself without fear of judgment. Says Blumenfeld, "You want to wear stripes with plaid and polka dots? You can!"
Sigoloff says that one of the best parts of working at camp is "really relishing all of the child antics that play out at camp. Where else can you go and jump in mud puddles and wear costumes and sit under the stars and roast s'mores for your job?"