From Camper to Counselor

Stories from campers who decided to extend their love of summer camp by becoming camp counselors.

By Sara G. Stephens

During Jonathan Keller’s last year at Long Lake Camp for the Arts (www.Longlakecamp.com), he sat down for a conversation with his counselor to talk about becoming a theatre camp counselor. The conversation stuck with him over the years as he graduated high school and joined the army. He was so moved, in fact, that after a tour in Iraq, Keller traveled back to America, where he talked with the performing arts camp director about returning to camp as a counselor. He started that summer.

“At first I was nervous about my new job at camp, because I didn’t want to tarnish Long Lake Camp’s great image,” Keller admits, “but after I settled in I realized that the kids looked up to me, and I was able to touch their lives just as my counselor had touched mine.”

Keller appreciated being able to share his story of service in Iraq with the kids. For months following camp, campers continued sending him emails expressing gratitude for Keller’s service in the army.

But for Keller, one of the best parts of being a counselor was that he liked camp more as a counselor than as a camper. “As a kid I loved it, and it was great, but you don’t really get to appreciate it as much as when you are there for the whole summer and are a little older,” Keller explains. “It really sank in how amazing Long Lake Camp for the Arts really is.”

Keller also notes the difference he makes with kids when he talks to them like they’re “normal people, and not just kids.”

Keller’s advice to camper-turned-counselors is simple: “Embrace it for as much as you can,” he says. “It’s like being a kid again at camp, but you are old enough to appreciate everything this time.”

He adds a cautionary note for those newbie counselors who might have trouble forgetting they’re no longer campers. “I told the kids some stories of pranks I did when I was at camp, and then they would do them, so I had to be careful about what I told the kids.”

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For Jonah Rosenberg, the decision to become a camp counselor did not come easily. As a camper, he enjoyed seven summers at Camp Timberlane for Boys (www.camptimberlane.com). “My summers were filled with endless fun alongside friends from around the country,” he recalls. “Camp quickly became an integral aspect of my identity. It provided me with a haven where I could safely define myself and expand my comfort zone.”

After seven years as a camper, however, Rosenberg was hesitant to sign the counselor contract that would allow me to spend another summer at camp. He was (and admittedly still is) intimidated by the time commitment the job demands. But the choice to continue in this new capacity soon became quite clear.

“I would rather spend the summer in the north woods with friends I only see for two months out of the year than sleep late and binge watch television at home,” Rosenberg explains. “Since becoming a counselor, I have continued to grow individually and reap the benefits of camp.”

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Austin Teague’s relationship with Sports Quest (www.sportsquesttraining.com/) started when he was a 9-year-old, budding, soccer player. The summer before he started playing competitive soccer, Austin attended the first of many Sports Quest soccer camps.

At age 15, he was given the opportunity to volunteer at a Sports Quest camp. “I was immediately impacted not only by the quality of the staff, but also by the top-notch instruction they provided on a daily basis,” Austin says. “The following year I gladly volunteered again, and the experience was something I’ll never forget.”

As the years rolled by, Austin became more and more involved with Sports Quest, ultimately joining one of the camp’s competitive club teams. He also continued to volunteer at Sports Quest summer camps.

Austin continued his Sports Quest training throughout high school. “By the end of my senior year, I was wearing their jerseys year round,” he recalls. Before heading off to the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor to play soccer, Austin was able to make one final appearance as a camp staff member. “I worked every camp the summer of 2007, and enjoyed every minute of it.” From 2008 onwards, Austin interned for the Houston Dynamo, but still took every available opportunity to work at Sports Quest.

“After graduating from UMHB I was able to work one last summer for Sports Quest and give back to the ministry that had poured so much into me,” Austin says. He not only worked as a camp trainer, but also helped to launch and promote Sports Quest through social media.

“Hardly a week goes by when I don’t think about Sports Quest,” Austin comments.
“I have so many wonderful memories both on and off the field, and I continually look for opportunities to support their efforts by utilizing my Master’s Degree in Business Marketing.”

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Michael Atmar was a Kamper at Kanakuk (kanakuk.com), and he still remembers looking to his counselor and directors as mentors after whom he could model his own life. “Even the little things like reading their Bibles on the front porch of the cabin had an impact on me as a young boy,” Atmar says.

As he got older, Atmar says he benefitted from leadership-development programs such as K-Equip, which taught him how to face high-school issues with wisdom, so he could be “a light for Christ.”

During his last year as a camper, Atmar was given the opportunity to be the “chief” (student-leader) of his tribe, which was another valuable program that taught him about Christian leadership. 

Then he served as a counselor and had a chance to put into practice what was modeled for him at Kamp. “Hearing the directors’ motivation for doing ministry and learning valuable coaching and teaching techniques helped equip me to lead my Kampers,” Atmar says.

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Benjamin Zimmer attended UT Mens Golf Camp (www.texassports.com ) for eight years when he was young and worked it for two years as a counselor. He describes the transition from camper to counselor as an “interesting” experience. 

“As a counselor, you obviously carry more responsibility than you do as a camper,” Benjamin explains, “but you also have an interesting position within the camp.”

Since Benjamin had been a camper before, the campers turned to him when they had a question about the camp in general.  He was also seen as the campers’ liaison to the coaches, which made resolving a situation easier on the coaches and campers. 

For Benjamin, the most rewarding aspect of being a counselor is seeing how each camper has grown throughout the camp, both athletically and mentally.  “I had one goal with each camp, to provide each camper with an experience that will keep them interested and improving their game after they left the camp, like the experiences I had when I attended the camp,” he says.

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Jake Smith attended SuperCamp’s (www.supercamp.com ) Stanford Senior Forum prior to his final year of high school. The impact was so great that he became a counselor the following summer. Jake describes his experience as life changing and believes that what he learned during at this time made college life more fulfilling.

Though Jake concedes that the time spent as a counselor was exhausting, he admits it’s “the hardest work you’ll ever love.” His love hasn’t died. He went on to be a counselor for five more years and currently works for SuperCamp’s parent company, Quantum Learning Network, as partnerships director.

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As a camper at City of Sugar Land Day Camp, (www.imperialparkrecreationcenter.org), Jake Langerud knew he would one day follow in the footsteps of his camp counselors. “I loved being able to be in a position to inspire and motivate children in a manner in which I myself experienced during my time as a camper.” Jake sees day camps as a great source of motivation and inspiration for both campers and counselors. “I cherish my role within the day camp and look forward to every summer when I can share my journey from camper to counselor and the positive effects it has had upon my life,” Jake says.

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For Arlo Bujosa, 14, that journey will be a new one. Arlo will be returning to his beloved Blackwood Nature Camp this year as a counselor in training (CIT), because this camp, for him, is a home away from home. “I always anticipate seeing new faces of campers and old faces that have slightly changed. I look forward to seeing how things will be different and how they will be the same. I look forward to reuniting with counselors after not seeing them for a whole year,” Arlo says.

Arlo had other cues nudging him that Blackwood was a place he wanted to continue to spend his time as a CIT. For example, throughout the year, little experiences would remind him of camp and make him feel nostalgic. “I carried a bit of Blackwood throughout the year,” Arlo explained. “Some of these memories would make me laugh and some, like my mom reminds me, reinforce responsibilities at home.”

Arlo hopes other campers will likewise consider making the transition to counselors. “It’s not as intimidating as it might seem,” he advises, “and try to be open and not expect anything.”

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Maggie Raines, for one, needed no prompting. For this 8-year veteran camper at Frontier Camp (frontiercamp.org), deciding to become a camp counselor was “as natural as starting the next grade in school each year,” she says. “It was just something that happened effortlessly and without thought.” Maggie liked the idea of transitioning from being the one who nervously walked into the cabin on a Sunday afternoon wondering who would be leading our cabin, to the one on the other side, anticipating what little girls would walk through the door. Would they be sweet, or clingy and needy? Would they talk a lot or would she need to draw them out of their shells?

Most of all, she wondered if they would like her as much as she adored her counselors all the previous years. “Seeing those first girls excitedly enter the cabin, my anticipation turned to excitement,” Maggie recalls. “Kids love camp, and they love their counselors. They come to camp ready to have fun.

“I didn’t even need to put on a show as they walked in,” she marvels. “They were ready to love and accept me as their parent for the week, and all I had to do was join in the fun!”

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Such life lessons seem abundantly available as a camp counselor. The experience appears to leave its mark well into life, preparing young adults for situations beyond their current comprehension.

Take Allie Denton, for example, who says that attending Camp Hollymont for Girls gave her confidence, independence, and a network of friends who went from strangers on the first day of camp to sisters by the end of the session. “While daunting in the weight of responsibility, I joined the Hollymont staff because there were few people in the world whom I looked up to more than my camp counselors,” Allie says. “They were great role models – patient, fun, and selfless.”

Allie says her camp counselors showed her that life is about friendship, adventure, and growth. The growing did not stop at her camper years. “Being a counselor taught me compassion, patience, leadership, and how to put the well-being of others before myself,” she explains. “Being a part of changing lives has been my greatest achievement and joy.”

Since being a camp counselor Allie has taught at a high-poverty school in South Africa, been a nanny in Turkey, and currently works in Tennessee at a special needs school. “Working for camp gave me not only a passion for working with youth but also the experiential wisdom to know how to do that effectively,” she says. “Every time I enter an interview, I am confident, not just because of my degree but because of the real life in Asheville, North Carolina.”

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Natalie Clark, a past camper who is now a counselor at Hermann Sons Youth Camp (www.hermannsons.org), also was drawn to counseling as an opportunity to impact others. “As a counselor, I realized that the camper’s imagination and vulnerability is a precious thing to nurture,” she explains. “Whether it is wearing a funny costume, star gazing, or getting a camper to break out of his or her shell, counseling is endlessly rewarding.”

Natalie shares an essential tip for counselors, based on her experiences: “Have a clear vision of what you want the campers to get out of their summer camp experience,” she advises. “Counselors are the ones who have the most direct interactions with campers, and their visions and goals will impact how they handle those opportunities.

In fact, when interviewing prospective new counselors, Natalie, “What do you hope your campers get out of their experience at camp?” The candidate’s answer speaks volumes. “I know that I want our campers to develop their social interaction skills, gain self-confidence and self-reliance, become better decision-makers, be an effective part of a community, learn new skills, be able to take safe risks, know when to ask for help, and more, so I’m always interested in hearing what our staff and prospective staff have as goals,” Natalie explains. “Children will usually say that they want to have fun. We definitely want that, too, but fun is inevitable when goals like the ones I mentioned are met.”

Do You Have What it Takes to Be a Camp Counselor?

    • You must care about others without hesitation.
    • You need to be able to listen and really hear what someone is saying, not what you think they are saying.
    • A smile and a warm heart will surprise, delight, and be infectious.
    • A “never say never” attitude is perfect.
    • Enthusiasm towards helping others achieve their goals will in turn reward you.
    • Making sure the campers know you are there for them and not yourself will help you in every regard at camp.
    • Patience, calmness and an ability to rise above noise and distraction.
    • Your sense of humor is crucial as not every day is easy and the hours are long.
    • Stamina and good health make it all easier.
    • Remembering that children are amazing, special, and deserving of our immediate respect, trust, and dignity.

– Jonathan Keller, Long Lake Camp for the Arts

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