The crazy life of camp counselors

Camp CouncelorBy Allison Eatough

Kaitlin Horvath is more than just an overnight camp counselor at Camp Wright, in Queen Anne's County. The 23-year-old is an alarm clock, waking campers up when it's time for breakfast. She's a nature instructor, teaching campers how to set up tents and recognize poisonous spiders. She's a motivator, encouraging campers to try archery when they've never even seen an arrow before. And, she's a shoulder to cry on when campers get homesick.

These ever-changing duties are all part of what it takes to be a summer camp counselor, says Horvath, a Stevensville resident who has worked at Camp Wright for two summers.

"Every week is a new group of kids," she says. "You never know what to expect."

Such is the life for many young adults in Maryland who take on the job of camp counselors each summer, overseeing campers between the ages of 5 and 17.

While responsibilities differ depending on the camp, most counselors are charged with leading activities, keeping campers physically and emotionally safe and ensuring campers have fun — all for maybe $200 a week. When you consider counselors are on call 24 hours a day, this could boil down to less than $1.50 an hour plus room and board. But counselors don't mind. They love their jobs.

"You really get to know the kids... who they are and get a sense of what they'll become when they grow up," Horvath says. "It's very rewarding."

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Being a Camp Counselor – The Pros

camp counselor noteOne of the best parts of being a camp counselor is just how much fun it is, counselors say.

When Lindsay Schulte was 8 years old, she enrolled in her first overnight YMCA camp in Ohio. She was instantly hooked.

"I loved camp," Schulte says. "It taught me who I was and who I wanted to be."

So in 2007, when she had the chance to become an overnight counselor at YMCA Camp Letts in Edgewater, she didn't hesitate.

"I felt like I was at home right away," the now 24-year-old says. "Because I was a (former) YMCA camper, I wanted to give back to the community by doing the same here."

Schulte, who lives on the campgrounds year round, says she gets paid to have fun. She tackles ropes courses, leads arts and crafts projects, swims and even participates in a water balloon fight or two – all while supporting, guiding and caring for hundreds of campers.

"There's never a dull moment," Schulte says. "I love it."

Ali Fox, an overnight counselor at the West River Center's camp just south of Annapolis, agrees. Fox attended the United Methodist camp for several years as a camper before she decided to sign on as a counselor. She loved it so much that she wasn't ready to leave it behind.

"I always really liked working with kids," says the 19-year-old St. Leonard resident. "And I knew camp was fun."

Her favorite memory as a counselor came after a rainstorm last summer. Within moments of the rain stopping, campers and counselors alike ran outside to jump in massive muddy puddles. Within seconds, everyone was covered in mud, Fox says.

"It was a crazy mud and water fight," she recalls. "It was probably the most fun I ever had... one of those moments I will remember my whole life."

The overall camp atmosphere is one of the top reasons counselors like Schulte and Fox love their jobs. A place to live is an added bonus, counselors say. But for most counselors, the bond they form with campers is the number one reason they come back year after year.

Fay Carroll, a counselor at Camp Accomplish — which serves kids with and without disabilities — keeps photos of former campers on her dormitory-room wall as a reminder of the times they shared during her four years at the camp so far.

"I learn things from these kids all the time," says the 22-year-old from Ellicott City, who is now a student at Landmark College in Vermont.

Carroll recalls one summer when she worked with a 9-year-old girl who had cerebral palsy. The girl, who used a walker, wanted to try the high ropes course but she couldn't do it alone. So, Carroll climbed onto the ropes with her and helped her get through.

"It was a working experience for both of us," Carroll says. "It was tough because we were both using a lot of muscles. We were both working so hard to reach that goal."

When they reached the end, the girl had a huge smile on her face.

"She looked at me and said, 'We did that together,'" Carroll says. "We helped each other get through that."

The experience created a memory that will last a lifetime, Carroll says. It is also one of the reasons she wants to work with children after she graduates, she says.

Being a Camp Counselor – The Cons

The intense hours are by far the biggest challenge of being a camp counselor, Schulte says. "It's physically, mentally and emotionally draining."

Most overnight counselors live at the camp throughout the summer. Camps typically run in weekly sessions, beginning on Sunday afternoon and ending on Friday evening. That means counselors may only get one to two days and nights off each week.

The average counselor day starts around 7 a.m. and ends around 9 p.m. Most counselors do get time to themselves after campers have gone to bed, but the job can continue well into the night.

"We sleep in the same cabin as the campers," Horvath says. "We're there if they are afraid of the dark, have to go to the bathroom or have a bad dream."

Working with fellow counselors 24 hours a day can also be tough, Fox says.

"You eat, sleep and breathe the people you work with," she says. "You learn that sometimes, you're not going to all get along, but you need to work together."

The hardest emotional challenge, though, is when campers get homesick, counselors say.

Some campers cry the first day, Fox says. Others just act sad. That's when Fox's experience as a camper and counselor come in handy. She empathizes with them and encourages them to stick it out. Then, she does everything she can to keep them busy from Bible study, to swimming, to arts and crafts, to archery. By the second or third day, those same campers are having too much fun to be homesick, she says.

"Nine times out of 10, they end up happy that they stayed," Fox says.

Still, even the longest days or the most homesick children aren't enough to keep these counselors from returning summer after summer.

"It is intense, but when you live here all those hours for three months, it becomes a lifestyle," Schulte says. "It's natural... It's like your own little world here. And seeing the smile on the kids' faces, nothing else matters."



How to become a camp counselor


So you want to be a camp counselor? While every camp is different, here are a few things you should know about the job:

• Age – Most counselors need to be at least 18 years old. Some camps have volunteer or counselor-in-training programs for younger teens, where they can shadow counselors and learn just what the job entails.


• Experience – Counselors do not need to be former campers, although many are.


• Passion for childcare – Camp leaders, like Julia Zahn, associate director for Camp Wright, says counselors should be excited about positively impacting the lives of campers. "Applicants who can talk about the specific experiences they have working with kids and how they were rewarding and challenging always make me perk up," she says.


• Long hours – Hours can be intense, with most counselors being on-call 24 hours a day. That means they are there for the fun, daytime activities, as well as middle-of-the-night bouts of homesickness. "Camp isn't all tennis, swimming, archery and sunshine," Zahn says. "It is hard work. I like knowing that applicants are up to the challenge."


• Low pay – Counselors shouldn't expect to get monetarily rich off the job. At Camp Letts, the average first year counselor earns $175 a week plus room and board. Pay can jump to $210 a week as counselors return for subsequent summers or acquire additional technical skills. At Camp Accomplish, counselors can earn between $225 and $275 a week.


• Willingness to learn – Some directors consider technical skills, like the ability to swim or sail. But those skills are not a requirement, says Tim Saxton, educational retreat center director at YMCA Camp Letts. "Many of the technical skills such as belaying on our high ropes course we can train them on," he says. "So, we look for those that show an ability and willingness to learn."


• Room for advancement – Many camps offer leadership roles for counselors with multiple years of experience.


• Dirt and mud – It's camp. You're going to get dirty, says Bekah Carmichael, director of recreation for the Melwood Recreation Center, which runs Camp Accomplish. "Summer camp can be real messy, but that's part of the fun," she says.

To find a camp counselor job in Maryland, visit a camp's web site or check out www.camppage.com.