Thank you for being a camp counselor

Your heart is true, you’re a pal and a confidante.

Photo by: hadsie

If you went to summer camp, odds are, there’s at least one counselor who made an impression. Last year, we talked with Doug Walters from nearby sleep-away summer camp mainstay, Camp Hanover. And that got me thinking about my own experiences as a camper there from 1990-1992, and the counselor who was my unquestionable favorite.

As we put together our Summer Camp Guide for 2016 (you’ll find detailed listings of both day and sleep-away camps there), I kept thinking about that counselor. Her name was Carlisa, that much I remembered, and we exchanged letters for several years after we shared a cabin. I couldn’t quite place why we exactly adored her so much–she was very kind, and she treated us with a lot of respect. She let us give her a nickname (Charley) and make up songs about her (nice ones), and I vividly remember her letters. But as far as why she made such an impression on me, that’s anyone’s guess.

Unless…I thought…unless I track her down! One phone call to Camp Hanover to jog my memory about her last name and a few minutes of Facebook searching, and I was in business.

It turns out, Carlisa not only remembered me, she’s still got photos, letters, and all sorts of memories. As we talked on the phone for about an hour (a somewhat emotional hour!), it became clear that we were so similarly aligned in so many ways as far as what we were passionate about and how we tried to live our lives. It dawned on me that perhaps the impression she left on me was not just about starting campfires and being super good at foursquare–perhaps there were seeds planted that would steer me in certain directions later on.

It sounds farfetched, maybe, but I’ve been working on an article about mentorship (coming soon!) and one thing that’s been emphasized is that mentors have the role of being an adult friend for a child. Not a parent, not a teacher, not a sibling…a friend with the advantage of more life experience.

Guys, I think camp counselors might be mentors for a summer, or longer if you’re lucky enough to persuade them to be pen pals.

So I asked readers if they’d like to thank their counselors publicly, and our odes to counselors are below. If you or your teenager or young adult have ever thought about becoming a camp counselor, hopefully these will push you over the edge. You can make a difference in the life of another human being, which I’d be willing to bet is all any of us ever really want.

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Ken, Counselor and Kelsey, Camper at Camp Calumet, 1995

Camp Calumet is in West Ossipee, New Hampshire.

How do you think being a counselor at camp shaped you?

Ken: Being a camp counselor shaped virtually every aspect about me from an early age. I was a counselor between the ages of 16 and 21, at a time in which I was learning foundational life skills–personal responsibility, group dynamics, social skills, how to care for yourself and others, leadership skills, and much more. Working at camp all summer helped me grow up in a wholesome environment while learning critical life skills, and allowed me to have a whole lot of fun! To this day, I still use many of the leadership skills I learned as a Counselor in Training as a 16 year old.

Why did you decide to be a camp counselor?

Ken: Camp was a lot of fun. It allowed me to spend my summers doing the things I enjoyed the most- being active outdoors, spending time with my closest friends, and doing something meaningful with my time. Being a camp counselor allowed me to have an impact on the lives of lots of young kids- many of which came from disadvantaged backgrounds. It was incredibly rewarding and was truly the best time of my life. I made lifelong friendships at Camp Calumet!

What kind of person do you think would be a good camp counselor?

Ken: Being a camp counselor is truly one of the most challenging (and rewarding) jobs that you’ll ever have. The best counselors are the ones that love the job, put everything they have into it, and do it for the right reasons.

What are your memories of Ken and how did he affect you?

Kelsey: It’s funny that Ken said the summer (1995) that he was a counselor and I was a camper were so memorable, because it’s so true. Ken was fun, and funny, and he actually talked to me about real life stuff. I was a fairly typical teenage girl, obsessed with friendship and “making memories,” and over-thinking every single word or look and action, so naturally camp was the ultimate emotion overload. Stuffing an entire summer’s worth of life-changing experiences into two weeks is a surefire way to make anyone “never forget,”even well into fall and winter.

Anyway, I remember Ken was assigned to water sports–swimming, canoeing, sailing and the like. I was also a certified lifeguard, I grew up on the beach, and I’d even won a couple of regattas with my best friend from back home… and I think I was actually more interested in doing drama or arts and crafts, but I joined water sports because I wanted to hang out with Ken. I even stole a package that his parents sent him from the dining hall and taunted him by holding it hostage (who gets away with that?!) and he took it all in stride. He told me he was going to Syracuse to major in Political Science, and I ended up applying to Syracuse several years later with him in mind. I ended up going to UMass, but I pursued Political Science there.

I know I will absolutely send my children to camp. And even though it’s a Lutheran-affiliated organization, and I haven’t been to church since the summer I worked at camp, I still remember every word to every song we’d sing during Vespers and have the fondest memories of afternoons reading religious texts and sharing feelings with my fellow campers. It didn’t feel like preachy church camp, it was (and I think Lutherans always have been) like, “Be a good person, accept everyone for who they are, make an effort to live a decent life.” And that’s stuff that I can still get down with.

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Richard,1 Counselor and Michael, Camper at Camp Dudley, 1981-ish

Camp Dudley is in Westport, New York.

How do you think being a counselor at camp shaped you?

Richard: In my case, I believe that when I have been at my best in a classroom I am emulating people who guided me, three counselors at camp. All three had a great sense of humor, and I learned that fun and joking has an important place in teaching. I still make up names on tests, still pass along funny stories, and still find ways to bring some humor to each class. From those men, I learned to develop a sense of personal responsibility, loyalty to the institution, respect for colleagues, and devotion to duty.

But any good counselor would learn from his or her kids as well. I think that way back when I was a Junior Leader, I learned how loyal and responsive kids could be. I actually learned a great deal of my own self-worth by working with kids. My kids helped me to learn how to be patient, understanding, supportive, and goofy. I think I had those qualities, but the kids helped to nurture them. Again, this experience would be different for every counselor or teacher. But if you don’t learn from the kids with whom you work, then you are not growing. I’ve always learned more from my campers and students than I could ever teach them.

Why did you decide to be a camp counselor?

Richard: When I was a kid and had lost my father when I was 12, and my own counselor sort of guided me and cared about me. He also saw more in me than I saw in myself. He was a remarkable man who deeply touched my life. He showed me how hard work and real effort all laced with a good sense of humor is a good way to lead.

He was very kind, very patient. He loved jokes of all sorts and was something of a grand master of practical jokes. Some were so elaborate that one could write a book about how he pulled them off. His sense of humor was the proof of how much he loved his work and his life and he brought joy to many kids. In any event, he was a great role model for me. This response may be far too personal now that I think of it. I loved that man.

What kind of person do you think would be a good camp counselor?

Richard: Everyone has his or her own style. I serve as a supervisor for student teachers. What I’ve learned is that the college kids with whom I work each have his or her own classroom style. Some do things differently from what I have done or would do, but it works for them and for the kids. I suppose the success comes from wanting to be a good teacher or counselor and a sincere willingness to do the work that will help guide kids and help them to grow. I also think (and I tell my student teachers this) that the best part is to have a sense of humor, to be able to find joy with the students. Caring about them as individuals is very important. It’s no different at a camp or a middle school classroom.

What are your memories of Richard, and how did he affect you?

Michael: Richard was my first “real” camp counselor at a sleep-away camp. He was fun with a little bit of a goofy sense of humor. He made even the most mundane activities creative and fun, and we followed without any concern for how crazy we looked. He also made the summer about memories and team work and life lessons. He was very much a father figure.

I remember how much prep he must have put into each summer because, when I became a counselor myself and I tried to imitate some of the things he did, I simply didn’t have the time. I was better prepared for my second year as a leader in trying to bring back some of Richard’s magic. I had other leaders, both as a camper and as a counselor in training and none were as impactful as Richard.

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Carlisa, Counselor and Susan, Camper, Camp Hanover, 1991

Camp Hanover is in Mechanicsville, Virginia. Carlisa was less formally interviewed, but here’s how her answers shook out.

How do you think being a counselor at camp shaped you?

Carlisa: I’m getting chills right now, because camp made a big difference in my life, and not really in a professional sense.

I can definitely say that I was more of an introvert and camp made me more of an extrovert. I love the way it really helped me understand a lot of different cultures. It felt really diverse compared to where I grew up–kids from all different background. I learned that kids need freedom and also need boundaries.

I adored camp, and I wanted to be there 24/7, and I love the way it brought out things in people that you can’t see when you’re around your family or your peers. You just feel like you can be different. I wanted to pursue more music and art, but I just felt like I had to do something more practical in college. But when you’re at camp, it’s like, “Of course you can write songs! That’s fun!” I kind of learned how to play guitar remedially at camp, and doing that and singing some songs with people brought me a lot of joy. It was a magical place and a magical time for me.

The author (right) and her to-this-day BFF at Camp Hanover, 1991.

The author (right) and her to-this-day BFF at Camp Hanover, 1991.

Why did you become a camp counselor?

Carlisa: They recruited us at our school, Longwood. I was so into the idea that the recruiter was wearing shorts and had a beard. I was really into crunchy stuff and that was as crunchy as it got at my school.

What kind of person do you think would be a good camp counselor?

It doesn’t have to do with your skills and your talents, or what you’ve done in your past, because I didn’t have any experience at all. Someone that’s just flexible and open and willing to learn, and you definitely have to love kids because you’re around them. In that environment, they’re about as good as they’re ever going to be. I think they act very differently–even the ones that are spoiled and always get what they want. If they know that they have to help out and participate, they’re going to be their best.

We had a lot of freedom as counselors. Think about being in college, being responsible for that many children when you haven’t had children yourself, that’s a big deal. I can remember [the administrators] talking about that and making sure we felt like we knew what a big responsibility that was. But at the same time, they gave us freedom for how we were going to run our group. And working with a male was a big deal for me. [Each group has one girl cabin with a female counselor and one boy cabin with a male counselor.] We were kind of like husband and wife for a week! I was shy and a little sheltered, so we had to work together and make decisions about things. That was really cool and we were all really tight, we went out and weekends and did a lot of hanging out together.

It’s just magic, I can’t even explain it.

— ∮∮∮ —

Big thank you to Kelsey, Ken, Michael, and Richard, and a huge heartfelt thank you to Carlisa Dudley Sanders. Thanks for being you and helping make me me.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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