The Secret Benefits of Being a Summer Camp Counselor

As summer winds down, it seems like the perfect time for the 3rd part in my 3 part series on the benefits of summer overnight camps.

Most staff members at summer overnight camps would likely agree that moving from camper to staff is one of the most difficult transitions they have to make. One summer, they are the kids being entertained and – shazzam! –  the next, they are the adults in charge of making sure their own campers are safe and happy. And while being a counselor is one of the hardest, most exhausting jobs, it can be one of the most rewarding jobs they will ever have. It is not uncommon for staff to feel everything from relief to sadness when it is time to pack up and leave. Whether they love it or hate it, the experience of being a camp counselor often becomes a powerful source of strength and a knowledge base from which they can draw on their entire lives.

The long-term benefits of working at a summer camp include:

1. Experience working with kids. Working with children provides staff members with opportunities to be empathetic, problem-solve, be creative and silly, and learn new ways to relate to others. Most people eventually become parents, aunts, uncles or just have some other special relationship to a child. Kids offer amazing opportunities and lessons that, hopefully by having an opportunity to work with them, staff members learn to appreciate an enjoy more. That said, working with kids can also be fabulous birth control. I’m serious! While plenty of people enjoy working with children, few actually realize how hard a job it actually can be, and, at camp, that job is 24/7. While working as a counselor, many staffers realize Whoa, I do NOT want to be a teacher, or a pediatric dentist, and I do NOT want to have kids any time in the near future. These are all good things to know about oneself.

2. Gaining leadership experience. Campers live and breathe for their counselors. They watch them and imitate them. As a counselor, staff members get to feel the responsibility for actions of others. Staff may be asked to teach an activity while ensuring the safety of the campers but also making it fun and exciting for them. Regardless of the job titles staffers may earn later in life, the best camp counselors develop integrity, accountability and compassion — all traits that every employer, partner and friend look for, making former camp counselors valuable assets to people’s lives. Case in point: Once, I was visiting a summer camp on the day they were holding their annual 5K Bug Juice Run. It was a 90+ degree day, and my nephew, a staff member at the time, had started a hobby group to help train campers to prepare for the big event. He was so far ahead of the pack at the second lap, I was certain he would win the race. But suddenly, he disappeared. The kids lapped him once, then twice, making me wonder if he was okay: Could he have fallen? Could he be bleeding? Eventually, he emerged from the woods — running full-tilt, making up for lost time, he wound up winning the 5K. When it was all over, I asked him, “Where did you disappear to for a while there?” He said, “Oh, a camper overheated. She was dehydrated, and I thought she might have heat exhaustion, so I stopped to help get her something to drink, cool her down. I waited until someone else could come and be with her before I took off again.” I was beyond impressed by my nephew’s willingness to put his competitive streak aside to take care of another human being.

3. Experience putting others first. My youngest nephew is now an overnight camp counselor. Recently, on his day off, he went scouring garage sales, looking for little props to bring back to camp. He found a bunch of crazy hats, and he was really pumped about bringing his loot back to camp. Why? Because at camp, people appreciate individuality: The counselors who are most remembered are the ones who are the loudest, the ones who are willing to wear wacky clothes, the one’s who are willing to cross-dress, all in the name of fun! Every employer appreciates a free-spirit; someone willing think outside the box and take a little risk.

The communal nature of camp often requires counselors to put the needs of the group ahead of their own. Yes, there are plenty of times when counselors can have fun with another staff member, but there are also moments where counselors are expected to be their for their own bunks despite their immediate desires. One never knows when a tiny disagreement between campers could turn physical; staff members have to be there ready to deal with confrontations, homesickness, real sickness (schlepping campers off to the infirmary), helping with hygiene — especially with the littlest ones. None of these things have the appeal of a giant mudslide or a fabulous campfire s’more, but they are part and parcel of the job. Camp counselors are truly surrogate parents for as long as the kids are at camp, and our children count on them to put them first.

4. Gaining independence by making new friends and being in a new environment. At my son’s summer camp, many staff members are local but some are international and hail from New Zealand, Australia, Israel, Poland, Mexico and other places I’m sure I’ve forgotten to list. Since they did not attend camp as campers, sometimes they feel a little bit isolated being thrown into the camp routine, especially if they are nervous about their English competency. But whether they are native speakers or longtime-campers-turned-staff, ultimately everyone develops his or her own core group of friends who bond just like the kids — through common experience and their own cheesy inside jokes. And for staff who are new to a camp, going into a new experience without knowing a soul and coming out the other side successful is an amazing feeling!

5. Summer Lovin’. Many staffers experience their first real relationships at summer camp, away from the prying eyes of parents. There is hardly a better place to experience young love than at camp as nature provides the perfect backdrop: sunny days; a sparkling lake; leafy trees that rustle in the darkness; berry bushes to collect and share fruit, quiet places to sit and be still with another person. At my son’s summer camp, it is not uncommon for people to meet, date and later marry. To date, over twenty-five successful unions have their roots at Camp Seneca Lake. It’s not that surprising when you think about it, really: People who go generally share a similar background, are often paired up as a result of liking similar activities, and – as I have said before – camp provides that place to live with people and really get to know them in an unplugged way. Camp couples know how to communicate with each other. If couples can continue to stay in touch once summer camp is over, they stand a good chance of being able to make things work for the long haul in the real world.

6. Makin’ Major Connections. I am pretty sure that I am not speaking only for myself here, but nearly 30 years later, I still put Camp Seneca Lake on my resume. Why? Because someone always says, “You went to Camp Seneca Lake? My mother/brother/sister/cousin/friend/wife went there!” We chat about the experience a bit, and 95% of the time, I have ended up getting a job out of it! People recognize what it means to have spent one’s summers working one’s butt off to make other people’s children happy. It says a lot about a person’s character and work ethic. While they are in the moment, most counselors probably think the biggest benefit to being a staff member is getting to go into town and get pizza once in a while! Not so! If a person does things right, he should leave camp with a solid recommendation from the camp director! So to all you parents of camp counselors whose kids are just completing their summer experiences, don’t forget to remind them to put “Camp Counselor” on their resumes: What they did, how many kids they were responsible for, how many weeks they worked, how many people they worked with (or worked under them, if applicable). Sad as it may sound to them, eventually everyone does grow up and has to find a real-world, four season job! And sometimes camp friends land really great ones! Sometimes camp friends even start their own companies! There is major power-networking to be done if summer friends stay in touch with each other! Just another secret benefit to being a camp counselor.

What lessons did you take away from being a summer camp counselor?

20 responses to “The Secret Benefits of Being a Summer Camp Counselor

  1. Definitely a powerful experience that has many spin offs! Great series!

  2. I only wish I had been a staffer at Camp Eagle Cove or CSL for that matter. Some of my Conselors are still working at summer camps today. One even owns and runs his with his wife. And another takes off from his hectic life as an attorney to work with them each summer.

  3. Renée is spot on! Being a summer camp counselor is a rite of passage which positively shapes one’s adulthood, parenthood, career, relationships, and so forth.

    Alison also makes a good point that one can continue being a camp counselor into his/her adult years. Volunteer opportunities at camps for children with physical disabilities, for example, are a terrific way to give back and stay connected to your camp roots.

    • It brings back memories of one of my first camp experiences. Our counselor was a beautiful Israeli girl. Every morning, she would rise with the sun and pull everyone out for exercises. Her – and thus our – favorite was the one she did to the chant -“We must, we must, we must improve our bust.” It may have been an old joke and good exercise for our growing chests, but I have never forgotten the image of this gorgeous Sabra our there in her baby dolls revving up the camp girls. No boys allowed. Anyone remember her?

  4. I spent every year possible at camp as a camper, but not as a counselor. I decided to start college early instead. One of my few true regrets! Many of my camp friends and even my brothers stayed on as staff. I missed a lot! When my children were young (one was only 4 months) we started going to ‘Family Camp’. One in which the parents would send the kids to ‘kids camp’ so that they could enjoy some adult time. As a Family Camp counselor, I cannot describe the pressure you feel knowing that the parents were very close by, and the kids knew this. It was a challenge to keep them happily distracted. Often we treat others children differently than our own: not at camp! When they are your charges, they are ‘your kids’. This gave me some perspective on how children are the same, but different! Each one required a different kind of supervision. This comes to my point; I became a better parent, not treating my own children the same in the same situations, but dealing with them as individuals each time. As a counselor you learn that what works for one child may not work for another, and YOU need to adapt each time. This experience is similar to a work environment when you work with many, or just a few different people. Being a counselor helped me be not only be a better parent, but a better co-worker.

  5. NEVER, as a junior counselor, perform the practical joke of leaving the smashed, dessicated carcass of a road-killed skunk beneath the bunk of a senior counselor twice your size.

  6. Day camp or overnight camp is great! Every individual has a special personality and special skill to share at camp. You realize your potential and develop into responsible individuals. You see beauty, you give service, you worship God, pursue knowledge, become trustworthy and have FUN. I found our how much I love sports and plays. Later, I became a a director of the playhouse at camp. What fullfillment and success I had, all thanks to camp.

  7. The series captures a major piece of my young life – all the way through graduate school. I chose thriving at summer camp over slaving as summer associate. Then suddenly when I left Upstate New York, summer camp was no longer possible, yet I maintained the connection. By this point, my niece and nephew attended camp. They married at this same camp…and old friends sent their kids to this same camp. Talk about a network that spans generations!
    There is no other like this array of people.

  8. Camp can be frightening! You leave your child in hands of people you really do not know. You can have a child who could be hurt and no one informs you. You can get very sick at camp because of bad water and health conditions are not looked after. There could be a bad person who is a counselor who could molest another child. You have a camp that does not stay in touch with parents especially when they decide to take the children out of camp for an adventure and there is no way to contact them.

    Camp can have serious affects that could last for the rest of your life. Your precious child may no longer be innocent and must fight the elements. And guess what? You as a parent are not there to protect them. So watch out parents. Your child is precious, so be very careful! Sorry to be negative, but things at camp are not always perfect.

  9. Renee, well, I was not a camp counselor but was a YMCA camper for 5 of the best summers of my life, with a few friends from our old middle and high school. Learned my some of my life’s biggest passions–sailing, canoeing, hiking, water skiing, also started learning how to be a decent person. My goal is to get my two boys, who both live in Bolivia (landlocked and with very few opportunities with anything related to water), up to the US the first summer possible to ensure they can experience this crucial part of my culture. Thanks for loving camp as much as I do. (By the way, I am now a Maine Guide and Sea Kayak Guide and still, at age 43, am planning on getting a NOLS instructor certification. Had WEMT, have WFR and will recert next year. So another non-answer to your question is that I STILL want to be a camp counselor some day!

  10. Joanne Serling Fisher

    I remember the summer I decided to stay home and make money instead of returning to CSL. What a dumb mistake! I didn’t save much money, and I was pretty bored and unhappy without all the kids around.

  11. Being a summer camp counselor is one of the most valuable learning experiences one can have. You learn leadership, responsibility, teamwork and decision making. The relationships you make are long lived. Is that you rocking the cow-print pants?

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  13. Camp is the best place ever. Going to camp defined my childhood, but working at camp has made me the person I am today. I’m all for sending all kids to camp and can’t wait to go back next summer!

  14. I can surely say that being a camp counselor is one of the best summer jobs I have ever had. From going to amusement parks, to arts and crafts with the kindergartners, nothing beats it. I have been a camp counselor for four years now and I never regret signing up for it. When you’re a camp counselor, you have so much responsibility. The main part of being a camp counselor is being a role model. You have to teach children how to get along with each other, share, and just be considerate to each other. The scariest moment of being a camp counselor that I experienced was when it was gym time and this little girl was climbing the school’s basketball bleachers. She was playing games with another girl and she fell, cutting her face open. I ran over as fast as I could to carry her to the nurse’s office. I still get chills when I go to the gym where it happened. If I wasn’t a camp counselor, I wouldn’t know how to respond to situations like that. I would recommend anyone who enjoys meeting new people to become a counselor.

    • Well, you are preaching to the choir on that one, Chris. I went to overnight camp for a crazy long time, and now my son goes. This summer will be his 4th year, and he is only 11 years old. The emotional growth he experiences there each summer blows my mind. And thanks to great staff (people like you, who really care about kids), he has some amazing role models.

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