Camp Counselors: Part Teacher, Part Coach, Part Friend

Camp Counselors: Part Teacher, Part Coach, Part Friend

- in 2014 Editions, Magazine, May 2014, Parenting
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Hiram House Summer Camp.

CAMP_HHC2010SummerCampCanoeBoysIMG_2351There’s never a dull moment in a camp counselor’s summer.

Think of them as the front line warriors in the world of summer camp. From leading songs to encouraging new activities, camp counselors are the ones who work the most closely with your child throughout their stay.

Camp Leaders 101

When hiring counselors and aides, camps look for individuals who can relate to children and be strong leaders while bringing a sense of fun to the job.

“A good camp counselor is someone who is attentive to their campers, but is also strong enough to keep control and keep everyone safe and to have a good time,” said Ken Fortuna, who has the job of hiring the 32 camp counselors who work alongside the regular camp staff at Hiram House Camp in Chagrin Falls. The camp runs day and overnight camps for more than 1,200 students each summer.

“They have to be comfortable being silly and goofy for camp songs and dressing up,” Fortuna said. “We (also) try to convey that when it comes to anything unexpected, it’s important to stay calm. We really (focus) on that during staff training.”

Fortuna points out that the counselors, who are generally between the ages of 18 and 22, primarily are college students. Many are studying education or psychology and are looking for ways to expand their knowledge by working at a camp.

“When I interview, I ask them (how they would handle) situations such as if a child is being picked on or if a parent complains about something,” Fortuna says. “The biggest thing is gauging how well they relate to campers (and) do you have experience working with kids?”

Leah Lambert-Dustin owns FitGirl Camp, a mobile fitness camp that serves girls throughout Northeast Ohio, among other areas. Her staff includes female college students as counselors.

“They are very kid-centric, girl-centric and active, and they want to make a difference in a young girl’s life,” Lambert-Dustin said. The ideal counselor is organized, has had experience working with children and is “captivating, authentic, enthusiastic and comfortable in their own skin. They have a presence,” she explained. In other words, the ideal counselor at FitGirl Camp is someone who can be a mentor to the campers, all of whom are between ages 5-12.

“I think what makes a good counselor is great energy, and if the counselor can relate to students at all levels,” says Diane Kanney, vice president of enrollment and marketing for St. Joseph Academy in Cleveland. She oversees counselor hiring for the school’s summer camps. Golf, rugby, cross country, volleyball, theater, world languages, service and art are just some of the many day camps for boys and girls that the school will be sponsoring this summer.

CAMP_HHC2013IMG_7102SummerOvernightCampBoysCounselorSwimmingPoolGroupEnhancedKanney says for St. Joseph Academy, many of the students are paid, but some will use the camp counselor hours to fulfill the school’s required community service hours, which total 20 per year. Students often exceed the requirement through the camp or outside volunteer work.

“The counselors who work under (academy staff members, who undergo background checks, along with each camp director or person who oversees a specific area of interest) primarily are students who attend the academy,” she says. “For example, the basketball camp counselors are members of the school basketball team.”

To be hired as a counselor, some might have to have specialized training, especially if it’s a camp with athletics or if it serves children with learning differences.

Carole Richards is director of Un-School Camp, which is held at Lakeland Community College, but is not affiliated with the school. The camp is geared toward children ages 6-18 with learning differences such as dyslexia, Asperger’s, ADD and other issues. With its specialized nature, all of the counselors have college degrees and experience working with children who have learning differences. In addition to adult counselors, Richards hires aides who have at least two years of ­college.

Un-School Camp splits its day between ­academics in the morning, and theater, science, arts and sports in the afternoon. Because the campers have a variety of learning issues, aides must be “sensitive, flexible and creative,” Richards says. “Our goal is success for everyone who comes to camp. Kids have unique challenges that you need to ­understand. Training is ­specific to the campers’ needs.”

A Counselor’s View

Counselors are trained to handle everything from minor injuries to major cases. Many have to deal with homesick campers. Amanda Poropat, 25, who has worked as a camp counselor at Hiram House Camp since 2011, says she has seen all types of situations. That’s why being a counselor requires creativity.

“I had a lot of girls who were scared of thunderstorms so I made sure to have string to make friendship bracelets, (along with) crayons and paper,” she says. “We (also) pass the time playing new games. It’s hard to keep them all calm and distracted, but luckily the storms usually rolled out just as quickly as they rolled in.”

Hiram House Summer Camp.
Hiram House Summer Camp.

Poropat said it’s also rewarding to see her campers master an outdoor camp-out, complete with bumps in the night (raccoons), bug bites, homesickness and plenty of giggles. “When we woke up in the morning, they were so happy and proud to have slept outside all night.”

During the academic year, Poropat is a Head Start pre-school teacher, but she found that camp counseling was a natural fit. In fact, this summer she will be the day camp director at Hiram.

“I love kids and being outside,” she says. “I had enjoyed being a counselor at another camp the summer prior to starting at Hiram House Camp and I had wonderful experiences at Girl Scout camp as a child. Ultimately, I thought what a better way to spend my summer than at camp again? Plus, I did not want to spend another summer inside.”

So, what does Poropat think makes a good counselor? “Singing camp songs,” she said. “Some of my strongest memories as a camper include singing camp songs (and) playing with the kids. You can be a role model and still have fun and participate. Camp is the place where kids can really be kids, without any pressure.”

And she says, “the kids, of course” are the best part of the job.

“It is so much fun to see them grow throughout the summer,” Poropat says. “So many special friendships and memories are made with both campers and other counselors in the three short months of summer. As a counselor, I have made many lasting friendships, too.”

She added a challenge is watching the campers try something new or scary for them. “I just wanted to help them, but the thrill of seeing them climbing to the top of rock wall or seeing their fears go away as they paddled around the pond was a wonderful sight,” she said. Another goal is to get through the day without a camper losing something — a water bottle, a pair of goggles, a towel or an article of clothing. “Being a counselor you have to keep track of everything.”

Poropat said the final challenge of being a camp counselor is the most bittersweet: “Saying goodbye until next summer.”

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