What Camp Directors Look For In A Summer Camp Counselor

When you’re applying to work at summer camp, it’s hard to know exactly what the camps and their directors are actually looking for. Sure, they might advertise for a soccer coach, experienced climbers and ropes course leaders, passionate horse riding instructor or talented music and art teachers, but within those roles, what do the really want to see?

I asked my camp director, Adam Janaway,  a few questions about his camp story and how he goes about choosing new staff for each summer season.

Summer Camp Director Horse Cowboy

1. What is your summer camp story? How did you get to where you are now as a Camp Director?

Shortly after I had graduated from high school, I knew I wanted to spend a summer abroad before starting University. I spent hours perusing the internet looking for work opportunities abroad, and I eventually stumbled upon the BUNAC Summer Camp USA program. After speaking with the BUNAC staff to find out a little more detail about the program, I decided getting placed at a camp in the USA was my number one priority. Shortly after I had completed my application, BUNAC connected me with the then Camp Director of Camp Sloane YMCA. I secured the job and I was on  my way to the USA in just a few months. Shortly after arriving at camp, I realized that I had never really felt quite as much at home anywhere in the world as I did at camp.

I made life long friends, and not only enjoyed the work, but wholeheartedly believed in it. By the end of the summer I was ready to start it all over again, and fortunately I was invited back in a supervisory role. The next summer turned into the next 3 summers, after which I was certain I wanted a career in summer camping. For my 5th summer I was invited back as the senior program director, a role which I held for 2 years before eventually being offered the position as Camp Director of Camp Sloane YMCA. Now I am the one calling the undergraduate students across the world offering them the opportunity that I was afforded. The path I took to becoming a Camp Director was commitment, passion and perseverance.

2. What is it about UK staff that makes them great counselors?

Having an international staff has always been important to Camp Sloane YMCA. Exposing our camper population to other cultures, and backgrounds aids dramatically in their social development. Though I also hire staff from many other countries across the world, those from the UK usually make up around 30-40% of the overall staff. Of course the language barrier, or the absence thereof, is an asset for the British, but the culture of hard work and commitment they demonstrate is most valuable. The interest in child development also seems to be more popular in the UK, I can more readily find people willing to commit to live on a closed campus property, and spend every waking hour with children in the hopes of teaching them something. My theory is, because Brits grew up without being surrounded by the phenomenon of summer camp, when they get here they get the same rush of childhood excitement as our campers. Of course the trade off is also a great thing, as the British get to come to the USA and absorb our culture, and see many of the great things this this continent has to offer.

Summer Camp View Sunset Lake

3. What activities could UK staff be hired for?

I would consider recruiting UK staff for any of the variety of activities we offer at my Camp, we are a traditional camp so our campers have the opportunity to try most activities you would imagine at a summer camp. Some of these include: adventure (climbing, biking, ropes, zip lining, survival craft), athletics (most all landsports), boating (kayak, canoe, sailing, crew rowing, paddle boarding), Creative Arts, Culinary Arts, Media, Nature, Performing Arts, Horse Riding, Swimming, Waterskiing and more. It is always hard to find counselors for specialty areas of camp, so UK staff with skills in areas such as waterskiing, crew rowing, culinary and riding are always very attractive.

4. When hiring new staff, what skills and experience do they need?

Above all else, experience with children is key. Staff should have had extensive experience working with children in an instructional or pastoral role, and more than anything be able to demonstrate their ability to be a great role model. This experience must be beyond their own family and well beyond babysitting. While working at camp you will spend more contact hours with children than in almost any other profession. Here the kids don’t go home at the end of the day, you are solely responsible for the social, emotional and physical well being of the children in your care. Other than being a parent, there won’t be many other times in your life when you have this kind of responsibility, and be expected to perform in your role as a teacher/coach/instructor to the highest possible degree with an unfathomable energy.

5. What are the  attributes and characteristics that you specifically look for in a Camp Counselor?

Something to remember when applying to work at camp, is that the camp director you speak to in an interview is assessing whether you are somebody he/she can fully trust with the lives of the children that will be put into his or her care. A camp director spends the entire winter making promises to parents about the experience their child will have at their camp. They set an extremely high expectation, telling parents that by the end of their camper’s session they will have ‘built confidence’ ‘made lifelong friends’ and ‘ learnt skills they will carry with them for life’. The truth is that these expectations can only be met if the camp director hires the right staff members, as it is only through their hard work and commitment that children leave camp having had a positive experience. The qualities I look for in my staff include perseverance, the staff member has to be able to show me that no matter what is thrown at them, they can keep going with a smile and a skip in their step. I also look for solution driven problem solvers – it is crucial that when something doesn’t go to plan my staff are able to quickly and creatively find a solution, and not melt down. A genuine willingness to learn and grow themselves is also important, it’s okay to not know how to do some things, or to get things wrong. As long as you demonstrate that you are willing to listen to others, and learn from your mistakes. Finally in a camp counselor I look for a light, a light that shines so bright you can’t miss it. It draws you in and tells you just how much this person wants to spend a summer at camp. That might sound a little ‘far out’ for some people and maybe confusing to others. A sure way to make sure your light is shining is to be nice, be honest and to be yourself.

Summer Camp Counselor Banana Boat Children

6. What avenues do you use to recruit staff from the UK?

I recruit UK staff through hiring agencies like 3 Adventures, BUNAC and Camp Leaders. The screening process these agencies offer means that I know those on their programs will be quality applicants. I search applicants initially by skill set and then narrow down the applications by looking at previous experience. When I have shortlisted the people I would like to speak to I reach out to them and set up a video call to find out a little more about them.

7. What is your favourite summer camp memory from your years at camp?

I have worked at summer camp now for 8 years. Ask any camp person to tell you their one summer camp highlight, even from one summer and they will either laugh or give you blank stare. Each summer provides so many wonderful moments, its way too hard to choose just one. Between watching the campers grow around you, spending time with friends in ridiculous situations. Staring up at the stars from a floating dock, watching a thunderstorm roll across the mountains on a camp out. Inventing and playing crazy games, being a part of awesome theme days and color wars or being on stage with your campers singing, dancing, acting or all of the above. Summer camp will be THE highlight of your life.

If I hold one memory most special it would probably be meeting my first ever summer camper. After his parents packed the car and left him with me, trusting that I was going to care for their most treasured possession for 2 whole weeks and return him to them a better person, I felt how powerful my position at camp was, and just how much responsibility I had laid in front of me. That same camper will be joining the Camp staff this year, and has come back to camp every year I have. It is an incredible feeling of pride. seeing the young man he has become, and knowing that in part it is because of the hard work I put in during his childhood.

8. Do you have a top tip for anyone heading to summer camp this year?

Be honest with yourself, and all those around you. Don’t try to impress by setting the impression you have certain skills that you don’t. Chances are you are a great person and showing that will be your greatest asset. Remember every minute of every day that there is no such thing as a bad child, and remember that the kids who need the most love may ask for it in the most unloving of ways. Everybody is at camp to learn and grow together, sometimes that will be learning a new skill, sometimes that will mean learning how to live with other people, how to compromise and how to solve problems effectively. Remember you are there to have fun, but the key to having the most fun is putting others first in all you do.

Never forget the power of your position.

Oh and wear sunscreen (… see Baz Luhrmann class of 99)… and bug spray… lots of bug spray!

So there you have it. Some top tips on what makes a great camp counselor and how to get hired, directly from a camp director’s mouth!

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