From Camper To Counselor

One of our greatest strengths as a camp—a large number of “home grown” staff members—also presents one of the greatest challenges. How do we transition 15 to 20 amazing young adults each year from high-spirited “counselors-in-training” into full-fledged, responsible bunk staff members? Each summer, we place one former camper with two or three experienced counselors in a bunk of 10 to 15 campers. These newest staff members—all graduates of our two-year Leadership Training Program—have participated in dynamic workshops and experiences designed to develop both life-long and camp-related leadership skills. Even with two years of experiential training, these staff members often need additional support for the demanding role of counselor. Our 10-day orientation provides significant opportunities for staff to work through the transition from camper to counselor, but we wanted to ensure that they were equipped with the skills necessary to provide an outstanding summer for their campers, yet still enjoy their own camp experience. Happy counselors, as we know, make happy campers.

Ongoing Summer Training

Six times during the summer, this group comes together for a 45-minute workshop, each of which is designed to help participants address some of the obstacles that often derail a new staff. The results are more self-reflective staff members, happy campers under their supervision, and a significant sense of accomplishment for having completed a challenging yet rewarding summer job.  With feedback from the participants, we plan to improve and continue these training sessions as a permanent addition.

Creating the training program (when, who, where, how). For most resident camps, scheduling ongoing summer training is no easy task. The days are packed, so staff members need free time at night to rejuvenate, and with days off and special events, regular meetings are difficult to arrange. We were committed to not taking away any “free” time for additional training. We chose a regularly scheduled weekly period—third activity each Friday—and told all staff members to plan for the first-year staff member in their bunk to attend the training.

Facilitating. In addition to myself, whose job as assistant director includes overseeing the training and supervision of staff members, our owners/directors, Paul and Matt Krouner, were hands-on in creating and facilitating the weekly workshops. We recruited a former division head, Tessa Shapiro, who agreed to come up to camp each Friday, and she worked tirelessly to help create, shape, and facilitate the meetings. Staff members were impressed by the dedication of top camp leaders, and everyone benefited from having this level of expertise guiding these workshops. We also solicited the help of the senior staff, many of whom had followed the path from Leadership Trainee to Bunk Staff to Group Leader, and their participation provided many of the most inspiring moments of the workshops.

Meeting. The initial plan was to vary the locations; offering different meeting spots can reduce the inertia associated with training sessions. Once the summer began, however, we realized that gathering 30+ people for 45 minutes was best done by maintaining a regular, central location. The Game Room became the favorite spot, a comfortable indoor location with couches, beanbag chairs, and a fun atmosphere, surrounded by board games, Ping-Pong, a library, and a huge bucket of LEGOs. Since meetings were held during regularly scheduled activity periods, the Game Room was readily available.

Preparing. We introduced the workshops during pre-camp orientation, explaining that the goal was to provide scheduled time to be together, as well as to address ongoing issues to help members be better at their jobs.  We knew that one of the obstacles to making a good transition to counselor was feeling the loss of time with friends, so this scheduled time to hang out was the key. We designed a specific format for each workshop:

  • Shout-Outs And Snacks (5 min): The head staff was asked to identify several first-year staff members who had contributed something special that week. We gave out $5 Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards to four or five staff members each session, announcing their name and what they had done to deserve special recognition. We also provided a different snack each week—ice cream sandwiches, assorted chips, individual sundaes, cookies, donuts, etc. Meetings started with positive reinforcement, as well as genuine awareness and appreciation for the hard work members were doing.
  • Introduction Of Topic (10 min): We introduced the topic and offered a short exercise to help members focus on the subject at hand. For the workshop on “Qualities of a Great Counselor,” for example, participants were asked to reflect on their experience as campers and identify characteristics of their favorite and least favorite counselors. They then completed, on alternate sides of index cards, the following sentences: “I liked when my counselor...” and “I didn’t like when my counselor....” These were dropped into a box and, after the shout-outs and snacks, some of the index cards were read out loud.
  • Group Activity/Discussion (25 min): The original plan was to divide into four smaller groups, with each of the facilitators leading an activity and discussion. However, we found the group enjoyed being together and hearing each other’s experiences, so we usually stayed as a large group for discussions. After the initial activity, the facilitators took turns discussing obstacles and strategies on the specific topic, soliciting real-life examples from participants, as well as suggestions for ways to handle situations. For each topic, we prepared talking points, examples, case studies, role plays, debrief questions, and “tips” that each of the facilitators could share.
  • Closing (5 min): Even if we did divide into smaller groups, we always came back together as a large group. We offered take-away tips, asked for input on topics for future meetings, and always thanked the staff members for their efforts in keeping the campers safe and happy.

Choosing Topics

Before the summer began, we created workshops designed around a list of topics:

  • Qualities of a great counselor—challenges in meeting your own expectations
  • Managing summer stress
  • Wise use of time off—preventing burnout
  • Providing guidance and discipline
  • Helping kids build friendships
  • Managing bunk dynamics
  • Developing patience/empathy
  • Encouraging teamwork/fairness

Once the summer began, we solicited topic ideas from participants and refined the list: 

  • Finding a balance between friends, work, and sleep
  • Dealing with challenging camper behaviors
  • Staying motivated
  • Becoming “your favorite counselor”

Evaluating The Workshops

Written evaluations in the final workshop determined what staff members thought was most and least helpful. They loved getting together and having time “just for them.” They loved when we brought in “panelists”—senior staff members who had also grown up at camp and were now camp leaders, who would address the topic and answer questions. Hearing a favorite group leader describe the best way to avoid playing favorites was more effective than hearing it from the directors. Similarly, when one of the panelists offered a fun “speed game” for getting kids to clean up their areas, you could see multiple head-nods from the first-year staff. Participants wanted more workshops, they wanted more time together, they wanted to hear more from senior staff, and they loved the shout-outs and snacks!

Moving Forward

As busy camp leaders, we found the more prep we did prior to the summer the better the workshops were conducted. Group exercises, role-playing ideas, case studies, and “tips” can be prepared off-season, and can often be used interchangeably with minor tweaking for a variety of topics.

Bringing in senior staff members was a big hit—not only did they give the participants a more realistic sense of what was possible, but the senior staff had a chance to share their expertise, giving them an added sense of worth at camp.

Asking for topic suggestions and being flexible was appreciated. When several staff members voiced concerns about campers who don’t listen, we created a workshop on Challenging Camper Behaviors. Hearing a concern during staff orientation about silly or impulsive behavior being normal for a particular age group is one thing; it’s more effective to hear it on a day when a counselor is frustrated because his 8-year-olds are ignoring his pleas to stop throwing rolled-up balls of socks around the bunk.

Giving counselors an opportunity to offer strategies that might work for staff members’ problems helped empower the staff. Providing suggestions helped build group trust and established a culture of sharing and togetherness. As this group of “first-timers” moves up in the ranks, we hope to use their experiences in shaping workshops for the next group of counselors. In this way, we can continue to build on a strength that is essential to Schodack’s success: an ongoing culture of kindness and unity.

Karen Offitzer is the Assistant Director at Camp Schodack in Nassau, N.Y. Reach her at karen@schodack.com.

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Camp Basics

Camp Schodack

Location: Foothills of the Berkshires, Nassau, N.Y.

Cost to Attend Camp: $6,550—3½ weeks; $10,400—7 weeks; $9,450—LT Program

Ages: Coed, ages 7-14; 15-16 Leadership Training Program

Emphasis on kindness and active participation in a fun and nurturing environment!

www.schodack.com