Camp Counselor of the Week: Mairead McMahon

It’s been a couple of weeks since our last counselor interview with Cat, who has just spent summer 2016 at camp. Now it’s over to Mairead, who has now worked at her camp in upstate New York for 2 special summers!

Summer Camp Counsellor USA

1. Where did you go to camp? How many years?

I went to AHRC Camp Anne in Ancramdale, upstate New York for two summers, working as a special needs counselor in my first summer, and as a special needs counselor and Assistant Cabin Leader in my second summer.

2. Why did you decide to work at summer camp?

My decision to work at summer camp came about for a number of reasons. I had previously worked in America for a year at Walt Disney World in Florida, and I had aspirations and ambitions to go back again someday. I also had many friends who had been to camp before and their stories and pictures encouraged me to apply. As well as this, when I applied to work at camp, I was in my final year of university and I had no plans to settle down or find a full time job when I graduated, as I just wanted to experience new things, meet new people and travel.

3. What agency did you apply to camp through and would you choose them again/how did you find their service?

I applied through USA Summer Camp to go to camp in 2015 for the first time, and I found them extremely friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. I went to one of their job fairs in Dublin, and was hired on the spot at Camp Anne, meaning my placement process was a lot easier than I anticipated. The agency took care of everything I needed and I returned to camp this summer with them. I would definitely recommend them, and I’m happy to be returning to camp again with them next summer.

Summer Camp Counsellor USA

4. What is/was your role at camp?

In my two summers at camp I was a special needs counselor. This role was very different to what I was expecting, but it was the most incredible role I could have wished for. At Camp Anne, we had five sessions of campers, three adult sessions that lasted 12 days, and 2 kids sessions lasting 10 days. I was responsible for the personal care and support of one camper each session, and I was with them for the entire duration of that session. This meant that as counselors, we had the opportunity to create a special bond with each of our campers. The work was challenging, but it was inspiring and life changing and it taught me a lot about myself. I had the most wonderful experience at Camp Anne and I wouldn’t change it for anything.

5. Did camp meet your expectations? In what ways?

Camp completely exceeded my expectations in so many ways. I did not expect for it to have such a massive impact on my life. The friends I have met at camp are people who I will have in my life for a very long time. The campers who I worked with made such an impression on me; and I will forever be grateful for having had that experience.  I am still in contact with one of my campers parents, and have plans to visit her next summer when I go back to the USA. Camp is one of those places that is so hard to describe to someone unless you have enjoyed that experience yourself and felt those emotions. Camp is life changing; and I will cherish my camp memories for the rest of my life.

6. What 3 essential items would you never go to camp without?

A high quality camera; this is essential for capturing the most precious memories. When I went to camp for the first time, I brought both an iPhone and a GoPro to take pictures and videos. Personally, I recommend a GoPro because of its durability and it’s ability to take shots that no phone can take. It’s also waterproof – which is great for underwater selfies and videos.

Spending money; if you want to take advantage of the 30 days grave period after your camp contract to travel, then you need to bring spending money, especially as a first time camp counselor. In your first year as a camp counselor, the agency will take a significant chunk of your wages meaning you’re left with a fraction of what you could be getting. Bringing spending money for travelling is important if you want to make the most of your experience. Don’t do what I did and arrive with no spending money!

A memento from home; for me, this is important. It’s nice to have something that you can keep in your cabin or under your pillow to remind you of home. I’ve lived away from home 5 times now, and everywhere I go I bring my Irish flag. I got it signed at camp this year by all my friends, so in the future, when I travel somewhere else, I’ll see the names of my friends I’ve met from all over the world, and I’ll keep those memories with me wherever I go.

Summer Camp Counsellor USA

7. What is your best/favourite camp memory?

I have experienced so many beautiful moments at camp, but my favourite memory was in my first summer, when I had a wonderful camper who had a number of disabilities. She was autistic, therefore had some challenging behaviours that were difficult to deal with. I found this session particularly tough because I had no direct experience of working with individuals with special needs, so I had to adapt myself to her behaviours. Throughout the 12 day session, I found it hard to encourage her to get involved in activities, especially the themed evening activities. On the eighth day of that session, we went to evening activity and I was dancing in front of her for more than an hour, trying to get her to give me some sort of indication that she was enjoying herself; and out of nowhere, she grabbed my hands and pulled me towards her and hugged me tightly, before pushing me away. This moment was incredibly special because she never showed any emotion up until that point, and because she was non-verbal it was hard to understand her feelings and emotions. This moment made me realise that between us we had an amazing bond, and it was made even more special when she recognised me this summer when I went back to camp, and I spent another 12 days with her.

8. What is/was your favourite camp food?

At Camp Anne, we had treats every evening after a long days work. It was called OD (on duty) food, where we would go down to the kitchen and have some nice food once the campers were all in bed. OD food was genuinely what the counselors lived for every day because the food was nicer than the meals we had during the day. Typical OD food included chocolate fondue, pizza, chicken wings and ice cream sundaes – but my favourite food at camp had to be the chicken curry on OD! It was amazing!

9. What is/was your favourite camp cheer/chant?

I have two favourite chants; one counselor chant, and one chant/song made by one of our campers. These will make no sense to anyone else but the people at Camp Anne – but it’s a lovely memory for me to have.

Our cabin chant; C E to the D A R!

Our camper chant; Happy Halloween but it’s not Halloween but it’s spooky outside.

Summer Camp Counsellor USA

10. What is your favourite camp saying/word/expression?


11. Where did you travel to after camp (if you travelled)?

Instead of traveling after camp, I tended to travel on my days off. Last year, I went to New York City a few times, and also went to Niagara Falls, which is probably my favourite travel experience ever. This summer, I went to Lake George in New York and Atlantic City with all of my camp friends.

12. How has camp influenced you/who you are/what you do?

Camp has had a massive impact on my life; and I will forever be grateful for what I have learnt from being a camp counselor. For me, working at a special needs camp was a completely different experience than what I expected, but it changed my life, made me a better person, and changed my perception of what is important in life. Camp will always have a special place in my heart, and the people I have met there will always be in my life.

13. What is the BEST thing about being a summer camp counselor?

The best thing about being a camp counselor for me is the opportunity to meet friends from all over the world. Camp is such a multicultural environment and it’s wonderful to be able to visit your camp friends during the year when you’re not at camp. Your camp friends really are friends for life, and being able to visit them all over the world is incredible. The support they give you when you’re at camp is also something that cannot be found anywhere else – camp people understand fellow camp people. Camp people are the best people.

Summer Camp Counsellor USA

14. What’s the WORST thing?

The worst thing about being a camp counselor is leaving on the last day and knowing you won’t be back until next year!

15. What the most important thing that camp has taught you?

I am lucky to have so many great memories of camp; going to Niagara Falls, Atlantic City, Lake George, meeting some of the best people you can even imagine, and being able to go to New York City every two weeks.

But one memory stands out to me, and my most worthwhile experience at camp was breaking my arm.

You see, its not until I had some sort of physical restriction that effected all aspects of my daily life that I realised how lucky I was.

I couldn’t put my hair up, have a shower without one of my friends helping me to get dressed or open a door by myself.

This experience helped me to reassess my entire life and made me realise that I am so incredibly lucky. This experience helped me to realise that there were 500 other people at my camp who had the most severe physical and intellectual disabilities you can even imagine; and they were never going to heal. My arm would heal in 6 weeks. Put things into perspective for me.

This is why I have such a passion for camp. I try to explain it to everyone I come across, and I get so many eye rolls. The smile from someone who is unable to speak, the ‘I love you’ in sign language from someone who is deaf, or the cuddle from your camper. Words can’t describe the feeling. The happiness that I feel in my heart is beyond description.

16. Anything else you want to say to people thinking about working at summer camp?

Camp will change your life forever. It sounds cliché, and you’ve probably heard it all before, but it’s impossible to adequately describe the experience at camp unless you feel that yourself. My advice to all of you reading is to rake a risk – you future self will thank you for it.

Summer Camp Counsellor USA


If you’ve been to summer camp and want to tell the world about it, get in touch via the contact page or on Facebook or Twitter!

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