The Blog of the West Wind

The Blog of the West Wind

The value of camp counseling work

Wednesday, March 19, 2008/by Chuck Mills/Go Back

This year more than any other I've felt the effects of the cultural phenomenon drawing young people into a career-, and resume-building mindset, and activities as they approach and move through their college years. I listen to the language of the age: "it will be good for my resume"; "I need to do this because it will be good for my career choice"; "I'd rather be at camp, but I have to do this for my resume"; "I have to do an internship". And the implication with respect to working as a counselor at camp: "camp is fun and there's no time for such anymore; this is serious and connects to my future". Obviously, I - and others who consider our work with kids at camp important - have failed to demonstrate the ultimate value of their work with kids at camp.

Kabeyun, like most camps, relies on twentysomething people to be leaders and counselors for our campers. Sure, we have a healthy age-range for our typical staff - from 18-88 I like to say, and it's only a little bit of a stretch. We have a few working teachers, older grad students, and a couple of older working professionals who are either in transition or have found a way to carve out a summer from their professional life... and we do have a man who continues to work with our boys at 88 years old. But it's the college-age folks who form the core of our staff. Usually, they are guys who have grown up with us, spending several summers as campers, working through the counseling internship program and continue to return with the expressed desire of "giving back". But we are also usually able to attract new folks, from outside of the Kabeyun circle as well as young men and women who come because they are personally connected to these guys we've known.

It has become increasingly challenging to attract college-age talent, especially males, who want to work with kids, and it has become pretty clear that the biggest reason is that they do not equate the work we do with "real work" - "real world" experience that will connect to their futures in meaningful (too often read remunerative) ways. Where are they getting the message that the work we do with kids at camp is not as valuable as a summer spent pushing paper in an office, carrying out somone else's research in a lab, or any number of the sorts of internship experiences I hear them pursuing?

I have made the decision to hone my own message to these folks, though the entire society needs to hear it. I fear that maybe we have failed to emphasize the real value of the work each summer. So here are a few core ideas.

When I hire a conselor for camp, I am hiring a young person to take care of other people's babies. It is a position that, as a parent and educator, I take very seriously. We are entrusted with their safety and well-being. I ask our counselors, regardless of age and life experience, to be parents to the boys in our care; to help grow them as surrogates. I ask them to see and understand the promise we make to families about delivering a more deeply felt experience and assume responsibility for delivering that promise. We ask them to learn how to manage groups, teach problem-solving and conflict management; to be aware of the demands of special learning needs and to become effective instructors; to manage a variety of social challenges kids are coming with and teach tolerance and peaceful living; to accept responsibility for the physical and emotional safety of the kids in our care. Counselors must live and work closely with a varied group of about 50 others; create their own lesson plans, maintain their teaching environment, order supplies, communicate with parents and each other, solve problems on the fly, adapt set plans to changing conditions with only a moment's notice, make hundreds of judgment calls and decisions every day that affect the lives of others. Counselors are asked to open themselves to others, younger and older, who may not be like them at all; reach out to others with whom they may feel tension, or with whom there may be very little apparent common ground. They are asked to be prepared at all times to put others' needs before their own, to sacrifice their own wants for the sake of the community, or the needs of a particular boy in our care.

I could continue. The point is that I challenge any employer in any business, or industry, or profession and look at even that incomplete list and tell me honestly that these things do not help to create stronger workers, employees, partners, human beings. I challenge any parent to tell me honestly that an internship in an office is more valuable to the growth of their twentysomething than being faced with these challenges and experiences. I challenge an counselor in any school career counseling office to tell me that the skills required and learned by being challenged in these ways is not equal to ANY other experience they might recommend as "resume building."

I understand that these young people are also being drawn to other types of experiences that were never as available to my own generation: adventure in foreign countries, volunteer opportunities with the poor, opportunities in the burgeoning outdoor education field that appeal to their sense of adventure... it is hard for me not to cheer them on as they pursue these other options even as it means losing them at camp.

But camp counseling is a serious pursuit, equal to or surpassing any of the above in both in-the-moment, and future value. I want it recognized as such by parents eager to see their children grow and succeed; employers eager to recruit new talent to their own businesses. I want them all to recognize and promote the qualities cultivated by our work with kids: dedication, flexibility, initiative; the ability to work long hours, see the bigger picture and work toward supporting the mission and philosophy of an organization; empathy and compassion; decision making, planning, and problem solving skills.... Are these not the qualities and values we dream of in our employees and society's work force?

This is what the value is to the counselor at our camp, and above all, perhaps is the opportunity to really make a positive difference in another person's life. These are things that stay with us forever and enrich our experience as humans in a complicated, fast-paced, challenging world...

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