Starve The Ego, Feed The Soul

By Laura Whitaker

As an eager freshman at the University of Georgia, I sought out opportunities to volunteer for organizations whose purposes were meaningful to me. Extra Special People (ESP) immediately caught my eye as a nonprofit serving youth and adults of all ages with special needs. I was trained as a summer-camp volunteer and, after just one year of service, I was tapped to run programs when our founder lost her short battle with cancer. At age 19, I was training and equipping my peers with whom I was serving.

Thirteen years later, Extra Special People has grown to provide after-school programs and summer, day, and overnight camp experiences for hundreds of children and young adults with special needs across Northeast Georgia. I’ve had the privilege and perspective to serve not only as a volunteer, camp staffer, and coordinator, but also as a leader in training eager university student volunteers and staff members, much like myself. As time has passed, I’ve seen a shift in the behaviors, attitudes, and expectations of volunteers; I have had to adjust and invent training programs to continue engaging and inspiring young adults so they can serve children of all abilities.

My staff members and I do not take this responsibility lightly. We are caring for young boys and girls with disabilities ranging from autism to traumatic brain injuries to Down Syndrome and other severe physical and developmental disabilities; we recognize that these children deserve the chance to experience camp as every other child in America does—without restrictions, limitations, or boundaries.

Since I am no longer running the programs as I did in my early years at ESP, my aim now is to train and motivate the Millennial generation to maintain the same quality of programming. Getting ahead of the curve is vital to training them to be great leaders and great people. I firmly believe that, while collegiate volunteers need to enjoy their jobs and the camp experience, it is a job. It is employment. So, by teaching good practices—articulating insubordination, human resources-related (HR) issues, expectations and ethics--I aim to provide leadership training that goes beyond their work at camp and into their lives as adults in society.


Brunch Boss
When training students, a tried-and-true tactic to begin a successful session is food. College students are always happy to be fed, and a favorite among the Millennial generation is brunch. So, as we feed their bodies in the breakfast training sessions, I aim to also feed their souls. The caliber of student is extremely high at our recruiting field, the University of Georgia. They are very book smart, but they are still kids. In order for We expect them to be both passionate and empathetic while also being great employees.

Get Grit
The first session, “Get Grit,” focuses on endurance, work ethic, and HR-related terms such as time theft and insubordination. While the HR topics are not the most fun to discuss, the expectations laid out before give employees the understanding they need to be successful. We discuss social media and personal time, and I calculate that, if every camp counselor was on Facebook for five minutes every day during paid hours, what that cost to donors would be. Millennials see social media as an appendage and often do not realize that personal time is a cost to the organization.

The time and effort topic leads to a discussion about grit. Camp life is difficult, taxing, often hot, and emotionally, physically, and mentally draining. The definition of grit is “a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual's passion for a particular long-term goal or end state, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their respective objective.” Camp staff members by nature are passionate, but the ability to hold on to that for a long-term goal (throughout the summer) is the mark of a person’s character. Talking through scenarios when it could be easier to give up and lose that passion helps counselors prepare themselves for those moments.

Starve The Ego
The second training session, “Leggo My Ego,” includes waffles and focuses on a discussion of ego, humility, and growth. Pride prevents us from seeing our own mistakes. I stress the importance of recognizing, admitting, and learning from mistakes in improving ourselves. We ask each employee to own his mistakes: “when you mess up, fess up.” Our campers have abilities and disabilities of every kind. By understanding our own weaknesses, we can better understand the weaknesses of others—those we work with, and those we serve.

Without pride, we are better able to approach situations with a willingness to learn. Our employees and volunteers love to learn, and we encourage them to come to us assuming they know nothing. This can be challenging because they are smart young adults who do know a lot, but accepting that they do not know everything about leading campers well gives them the chance to open their ears and their minds to training. In soaking everything up like a sponge, they miraculously create a team that is bonded from the beginning with the same tenets and the same culture.

Blame and belittling have no place at ESP, nor, I imagine, at any other camp. If employees and volunteers think they don’t have to take responsibility for their actions or must degrade co-workers in order to feel secure in themselves, the culture becomes toxic. It may sound utopian, but we want to build a culture at ESP that creates “the best you” so that others can be served well. Finding a solution instead of placing or avoiding blame, and being a mentor instead of belittling others, offers growth and leadership for all. It cultivates not only a positive camp environment but a productive society beyond our campgrounds.

Feed The Soul
In Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, author Simon Sinek reminds us that selflessness is important, but taking time to care for one’s self is equally vital. Being a counselor can leave one exhausted both mentally and physically. In order to feed the soul, I try to teach employees and volunteers to carve out alone time to refresh and revitalize their tired bodies and minds. This is also important for camp leadership to value and to lead by example.

Learning from another recommended read, The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, I encourage our team to find joy in the everyday. The first day of camp is overflowing with excitement and adrenaline. By day five or six, though, even the most enthusiastic and well-intentioned staffer can become depleted. Intentionally seeking out joyful moments, even in the mundane tasks, and taking time out for oneself, can make or break a camp staffer and the overall work experience.

We implemented “Give 5” as an intentional practice of finding joy in the moment. Anyone can ask a staff person or volunteer at any time to list five things for which they are grateful. They can even be small, like “My shoes are really comfortable/I had a really good lunch/Rey smiled at the pool today.” By introducing this concept at training and practicing it throughout the summer, we find it teaches everyone to keep joy and positivity in mind.

I also urge our trainees to seek out constructive feedback and ask, “What could I do better in this situation?” Learning from other, more experienced staff members and asking for feedback is a sign of maturity, not a lack of ability. It’s important to stress that these young people should not be embarrassed by mistakes or questions. Rather, they can use these opportunities to grow their capabilities and experience, so that one day they, too, can be a mentor to others.

We have an incredible opportunity to train tomorrow’s leaders as we ask them to guide campers through the best summer experiences of their lives. By feeding them their favorite meals while fueling them for a lifetime in the workplace, I feel confident they will not only serve with success, but will obtain the lessons and best practices to help them navigate through life. Cultivating a love of service and selflessness opens the window to a world that I want to live in. Let’s challenge ourselves to invest in training camp leaders who will make great societal leaders one day.

Laura Whitaker is the Executive Director for Extra Special People. Reach her at