Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Love Letter to Camp Counsellors

My friend, Sarah, posted this article by the Globe & Mail on her Facebook yesterday, entitled "Why being a camp counsellor is great training for becoming a Prime Minister" by Joanne Kates, it instantly caught my attention. Why? because, of course, I was the ultimate camp-kid, my first day-camp experience was when I was 6, then a stay over camp from 8 until 15, counsellor from 16-18, riding leader & "barn boss" from 19-20 until the very sad closure of my camp after this last summer... my summers from age 16 on were camp, nothing else.

The premise of the article is that the Conservative government is attacking Justin Trudeau in a series of ad campaigns that show his many jobs that render him unsuitable to be prime minister - one of them is his time spent at Camp Ahmek in Algonquin Park as a late teenager. Now, perhaps the baby Trudeau won't make a wonderful Prime Minister, but is this in part due to his time as a camp counsellor? I highly doubt it...

The Author states that the Conservative's have made a mist-step, since being a camp counsellor is an important, and high-skill job. She then goes on to list the qualities each camp counsellor has to have, and where those qualities and lessons are created in a camp setting. These examples are ones that every camp counsellor knows well... "Put 10 young kids in a cabin for a week or a month. It can be a powder keg. Sure, camp is fun and 99 per cent of children adore it; but there are inevitable - and sometimes intransigent - struggles." and "Maintaining order and discipline without descending to authoritarianism requires walking a fine line. How do two counsellors put ten children to bed, teeth brushed, faces washed, kindness reigning, all in under an hour?"

Performing a skit at Camp-fire

Well.. I can answer that, at my camp it was the fine balance of bribery, sternness and love. I fondly remember moments of, "Girls, if you are in bed in less than 5 minutes, I will read you two horse stories tonight, instead of just one!" but there was nights too where the kids crossed the line and went from hyped up on sugar, and restless, to plain disrespectful and rude - mob mentality of 12 year olds - and I can still remember the sting of my own counsellors saying to us kids, "I'm really disappointed in you guys, I've decided that there will be no nighttime activity tonight because I am simply too sad, and hurt. Please go to bed now." The lights would flick off and we'd all sit under our sleeping bags whimpering... disappointed...? The word "disappointed" is perhaps one of the most effective words in the English language. Of course, I (as a counsellor), and my counsellors of old, would then go spend time with their counsellor-friends, not being sad, or hurt at all, and by the next evening, the kids would all be little silent gem's, sparkling on their pillows, waiting for a bedtime story. Where else can you learn how to handle a group of swirling dervishes as effectively as that?

At my camp, half the day (and 90% of most little kids minds), focused on horses. I don't know if Justin Trudeau ever had to deal with kids plus horses, but the equation sure is an interesting one. During any morning we could have up to almost 40 kids huddled in the aisles, petting, brushing, saddling and taking out their horses getting ready to ride. Then throw in inexperienced young counsellors. Sometimes, it was mayhem, but it was always fun. Animals, especially horses, in my opinion, teach kids patience, respect and kindness. Our old crotchety mares would let the kids know when they were displeased, kids had to learn to watch out for little nips here and there, kicks and thumps, kids had to learn how to be aware. Such an important lesson. The horses also taught kids how to listen, and how to communicate. It wasn't rare to wander around the barn and hear a little camper whispering to their horse, sometimes it was sweet, "I love you, you are MY horse!", sometimes it was them sharing with their horse, "Today at lunch we had Mac and Cheese!" and sometimes it verged on sad, "Mac and Cheese is what my mom makes me when I'm sick, and I kinda miss my mom this week", and sometimes it verged on scared, "Please don't bash me into a tree today, okay?"

Just as horses taught kids, kids around horses taught us. A counsellor had to be patient, kind, and slow at explaining tough concepts. A counsellor had to be calm, assist when necessary, and let kids do as much as they could on their own. It was a tightrope, with a big horse on one end, and a itty-bitty-little fresh-faced 8 year old on the other, and you had to always walk one line, or another.

So, just as the author says, camp counsellors learn key concepts, lessons and qualities at their time at camp. This article really sums up for me why we did it, we we loved it, and why we'll never forget it. I always tell parents that camp is the BEST choice for kids - for me, especially stay-over camp, allows kids to learn how to be "independent" while still being taken care of and watched over. It forces them to make friends, but the counsellors are there to facilitate friendships with other campers if they struggle. It teaches them who they are, without parents, family, or the outside world that they know almost too well around.

For me, truly and honestly, being a camp counsellor completely changed my life. By the time I went to interview to become a camp counsellor (at my highly competitive camp, that is exceptionally hard to work at), I was taking steps down a bit of a murky, dirty path. Once I got the job, Camp picked me up by the back of my neck and swung me right onto another life path and it thumped me right down and said, "you're going to do well, but you better pick up on this stuff real quick, the kids come tonight." 

I am forever thankful for the lessons I learned there, the qualities that camp has given me and the life-long friends I am made.


  1. i cut out the article from the paper too!!!!! so good. love this post lou.