The highs & lows of being a camp counselor

The drawbacks of working at a summer camp don’t necessarily outweigh the benefits

Working at a summer camp offers room for personal growth.
Credit: 
Supplied by Ashley Rhamey

I open my eyes to find a seven-year-old poking my shoulder and asking me to take her to the bathroom. It’s 6 a.m. and the beginning of my workday.

When we return to the two-room cabin where we live with 12 other seven-year-olds and my counseling partner the day is already in full swing.

I scramble to get my giggling, largely non-compliant campers dressed and covered in sunscreen and bug spray in 20 minutes — something most parents or babysitters could tell you is impossible. We arrive at the dining hall miraculously with seconds to spare.  

Sound a bit frantic for a Sunday morning in June? It’s just a day in the life of a camp counselor, a summer job different from any other. 

You might have heard that while other university students are building their resumes with internships and field-specific summer jobs, camp counselors spend their summers hanging out and playing with kids. 

Don’t believe it. Working with children outside all day can be the more appealing choice in comparison to a mundane desk job, but it certainly isn’t free of challenging work. 

While camp offers many positive experiences, it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into, the good and the bad — and the ugly. 

Community

My friends back home will likely have a knee-jerk reaction of groaning for the rest of their lives when they hear the phrase I begin far too many stories with: “This one time, at camp …” 

But I can’t help it. Experiencing what is affectionately referred to as ‘camp culture

’ forges stronger bonds between staff than your average colleagues. It’s not a cabin in the woods that people are returning to, it’s an inclusive social environment where you can grow. 

I started my first year as staff at a summer camp terrified that I was too shy and inexperienced to succeed.  I felt overwhelmed by all the fun, interesting people I met my first day and was convinced I would fade into the background.

The opposite happened. I was valued for my quiet personality rather than simply told to be more out-going. What I had perceived as a personal flaw was turned into a strength. 

My camp friends are friends that I can’t help keeping. We spend 8 - 10 months of the year apart, but come back each year as if we left for a weekend. Weirdness is encouraged, odd talents are made famous, and not a day goes by that a kid doesn’t say something wildly inappropriate and we laugh so hard we cry.  

Personal Growth

At camp, I achieved so many personal goals: speaking to over 300 people at once, making life-long friends in a place I didn’t know a soul, portaging a canoe all on my own. The focus of the job is always to help the kids have fun and learn independence, confidence, and social skills. All of the positivity directed at them has a way of coming back to you. 

In high school, I picked up a habit of pretending not to care about things to avoid embarrassment. At camp, I was pushed to let people know what I liked and what I was good at as an example to the children, who were so easily influenced by my attitude. In doing so, I had to put away my insecurities.

The Pay Problem

A few of my friends and I once worked out from our paychecks that we were getting paid under minimum wage. After a little research, we discovered Ontario summer camps are legally exempt from paying students minimum wage because they are hosting their employees. 

Because they were technically paying my living expenses, my pay was dismal in comparison to some of my friends who opted to spend their summers working in the city. 

High Stress Babysitting

The majority of summer camp counselors in Ontario are teenagers and university and college students on their summer break. From the outside, such a young demographic can make the job seem trivial. 

But anyone who takes the job under the assumption that it will be relaxing will be shocked at how much physical and mental stamina it really takes. Camper populations can be in the hundreds, leading to a ton of running around and the occasional crying-into-your-pillow pity party for counselors. 

The more kids at the camp, the more possibility for accidents and medical emergencies as well so just one moment of carelessness can be catastrophic.   

As a new camp staff member, I had trouble learning to put the kids first. Sometimes when a kid is homesick at 2 a.m. pushing it onto someone else is an appealing way of coping with the stress. 

Summer camp has always seemed like a different planet. Each year the staff becomes tightly knit and the constant activity that comes with running around with a bunch of kids makes for some great days. There are certainly, however, bad days.

Working with kids gives me plenty of opportunities to just be one again too at a time in my life when adulthood is looming. The responsibility I was given, however, meant that I really became more of a grown-up than I ever thought I could be.

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