Future Leaders

By Heather Reichle

Camp Basics
Camp Eagle Ridge
Location: Mellen, Wis.
Type: Boys’ and girls’ leadership camp
Mission: To develop strong leaders, healthy living skills and a sense of community responsibility
Ages: 7 to 17
Sessions: Range from one to six weeks

At Camp Eagle Ridge, children learn to be leaders from an exclusive team, beginning with its camp counselors.

The camp claims to have one of the highest retention rates of counselors in the country, with most returning for 10 years or more.

Operating on a training model that requires participants to pass two different training programs before they are invited to join the staff, the highly selective operation helps determine those who are serious about becoming counselors.

The Programs--One Goal
First, a potential counselor enrolls in the Counselor in Training (CIT) program. While a CIT, the counselor-hopefuls attend summer camp like any other camper, and also attend a one-hour class each day to help develop their skills.

Whether learning how to put together a cohesive cabin, emergency procedures, camper healthcare or lesson plans for activities, the classes give each recruit full exposure and training on what it means to be a successful counselor.

In order to be selected as a CIT, the potential counselor must exhibit character.

“I can teach skills, but I can’t teach character,” says Kelly Byrnes, camp director. “They need to have good decision-making skills, be there to give back to children, and have an interest in teaching.”

Approximately 10 boys and girls are selected as CITs before moving on to the next training course.

The following summer, the group enrolls in the Junior Counselor (JC) program, which expands on the competencies learned in CIT, but builds more on leading activities with campers.

Once the JC course is completed, the recruit pool is reduced even further, with only about one or two members joining the full-time staff the following summer.

“It’s a fairly competitive process,” says Byrnes. “But by the time the staff joins the team, they are fully committed and have the right skills. Part of [retaining] a top-notch staff is knowing when to let go. We expect excellence, and average doesn’t cut it.”

Other Opportunities
Once a counselor is hired, he or she attends a 10-day pre-camp training course each summer as a refresher on emergency procedures, child-development, risk management and driver training.

“We are able to dive deeper into being an effective counselor,” said Byrnes. “We learn more about things like how to teach lifelong [lessons] through basketball, and how a canoe activity can teach kids about partnerships.”

Along with learning new skills, the counselors are expected to practice-teach all of their courses. This enables other counselors a chance to provide feedback and improve on their courses before the kids arrive.

Byrnes advises camp directors to take the time to check in with staff members throughout the summer to explore new training opportunities.

“It’s important to continue to ask staff what it is they still want to know. It’s key to give them what they need when they need it,” she says. “My responsibility as a director is to give my team a toolbox and continue to fill it with the tools they need.”

Ongoing educational opportunities--such as camp conferences--also are important to maintain a top-notch staff.

In this way, counselors are able to choose their own training--from building relationships to learning new songs. Conferences also allow networking opportunities where counselors are able to pull from their experiences and provide insight. It is also an opportunity for staff members to build relationships with one another before camp begins.

“Having such a well-seasoned staff lets others lean on their experience,” she says.

In the end, she says that having a great staff is finding the right people who have a passion for making a difference in a child’s life and being good leaders, who love being camp counselors.

“There’s a big difference between loving camp and being good alumni and making camp a part of your life for the rest of your life,” she says. “But if you want to be a camp counselor, you have to love the job.”

Heather Reichle is a freelance writer living in Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached via e-mail at HReichle28@yahoo.com.