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12 Life Lessons as a USA Camp Counselor

Written by: Victoria Philpott

This Land Could Be Your Land

When I was 20 I got a job as a camp counselor, specialising in DJing, at summer camp in upstate New York. I lived in the Catskills Mountains for almost 13 weeks as I experienced my coming of age summer, while helping others with theirs.
When I look back on myself before camp the personal trait that stands out the most is just obliviousness. I spent the ages of 4 to 18 in a small Midlands village with the biggest excitement being going into town on a weekend. It was great at the time, but I had no interest, or knowledge in life outside of my bubble.
Something inside me must’ve known there was more out there, but in signing up for camp I don’t think I really knew what a life change I was letting myself in for.

1. Sometimes you have to fake it to make it

I was brought in as a DJ, but when the previous year’s DJ decided to come back at the last minute I needed to diversify, or risk being moved to another camp. Really I wanted to be a lifeguard, but with no training I managed to convince them I was a whizz at Visual Arts. Having never seen screen print tools before, or used a potter’s wheel or even done any kind of art since Year 9 that didn’t involve Tipp-Exing my pencil case or painting my university room red, it was a risky embellishment. It worked in front of management and I became a DJ and Visual Arts Counselor. Hilarious.
Those poor American children didn’t stand a chance though, not with my painting, drawing, ceramics, stained glass and woodwork skills. I mean, I can’t admit to teaching them much, but they definitely had fun in my classes.

2. How to take each person as they came

I didn’t have a clue how intelligent or how important those kids or counselors were out of camp, it was how they acted in the moment that made them who they were. I pretty much knew the life story of everyone I grew up with, and at least their brother, mother, dog or cat. That’s just how it was in our village.
Some of the kids at camp had famous parents – David Hasselhoff, Patricia Arquette, Will Smith – but none of us knew it until parents day. The kids relished the anonymity, and it also meant they had to make it at camp using the skills they had, not their social standing.
It was the same for the counselors, although I’m pretty sure none of them were of famous ancestry. None of us had our family or friends with us, this was our chance to be who we wanted and how. All we knew about anyone was what they told or showed us.
We were all in the same boat, and it was a fun one.

3. That I can be friends with all ages and backgrounds

Apart from my weekend job at Boots, I kind of just hung round with the same kind of people for 14 years. Once I’d finished working at summer camp I had friends from the USA, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland and Poland. I’d also made good friends with kids from 7 to 67 years old.
Summer camp was a real eye opener and lesson that I had something in common with everyone, I just needed to have the confidence and communication skills to try it.

4. Kids are awesome

I wasn’t one of those people who grew up surrounded by brothers, sisters and cousins of all ages. Everyone I knew was within a few years either side of me, or they were just mum and dad’s friends. I’d done some work experience at school – which must’ve been how I managed to get the camp counselor job – but the thought of having to look after a bunch of kids for the summer was pretty intimidating.
Turns out I needn’t have worried. Over 95% of the kids I looked after at summer camp were awesome and really, I didn’t have many problems at all.
I looked after some of the funniest, most friendly people ever and I feel lucky that I got to meet them. Of course there are always going to be some you don’t warm to so much, but the ones that told me I was their favourite counsellor have stayed in my mind forever.

5. But kids can also be really hard work

Memories of trying to get the kids out of bed in the morning come flashing back when I think of camp. I shared a bunk with 14 year old girls and they’d stay up all night chatting and talking with their torches, and then of course it was impossible to get them up in the morning. I’d give them a certain amount of time and then roll them out in their sleeping bags.
Then it was hard to get them to lunch, to practice, to get them out of bed when they were ‘on their period’ for two weeks, to get them back from the disco, basically to get them to do anything. I also used to have to sleep by the door, half awake, to catch them if they decided to do some midnight wandering. They were exactly what I’d been like six years beforehand.

6. You never really know what someone’s dealing with

I worked at a performing arts camp and I remember more than a few occasions when the kids told me about how bullied they got at school. It was obvious quite a few of the kids had ‘issues’ – our camp leader told us this was their one chance a year to really be themselves. I feel like things have changed a bit now, with Glee and all, but back 10 years ago I feel it was different. Some of these kids made up the 5% that weren’t so awesome. As a counselor you have to be the adult and understand whatever the problem at hand, at camp it’s never the full story.
I remember one of my girls was really playing up. I had to take her out of the bunk and away from the others as she was winding them all up. I found out she’d been sent to camp because her dad had terminal cancer and she needed a break. She was acting up as she was worried her dad would die while she was away.
Another of my girls was desperate to go home, she was there for the full 12 weeks, but her mum wouldn’t let her because she had a new boyfriend and wanted the summer with him. She didn’t even come and see her 13-year-old daughter once in 12 weeks apart.

7. Americans eat some weird food

The one particular item that stands out to me, still to this day, would be the mashed pumpkin with marshmallow topping. To be fair I’ve never seen it anywhere else in the US, but when I mention it to any American friends they seem to think it normal, and acceptable. It’s apparently standard fare at summer camp in the USA.
There’d also always be cake. But American cake is like a minute piece of sponge in the middle and then a foot of frosting all over.
Fruit Loops cereal was another food I took offense to, which brings me on to my next point.

8. Americans take a lot of drugs

Every breakfast the queue for the nurse would reach round the dinner hall. Most of them were on some sort of upper / downer concoction which is why I just couldn’t work out how the super sugary Fruit Loops came into it all.
Bring them up with a bowl of colours, and back down again with Ritalin. Great one, America.
Have you ever seen American TV? There was one TV on camp, in the staff room, which was on permanently. The amount of adverts for drugs between shows was absolutely ridiculous.

9. The joy of a really hard earned day off

Working at summer camp is hard work. You’re pretty much on 24/6.5 – we were at ours anyway. In every three week session we’d get two days off and as soon as that came round my fellow camp counselors and I would be so excited. I went to Niagara Falls, New York City, ball games, and frat houses. Of course, I came back absolutely shattered but no one could say we didn’t make the most of them!

10. You never grow up, whatever people think

We’d spend the day trying to keep the kids in line, and the night going AWOL ourselves. At our camp we had a country club nearby which we basically took over for the summer – we’d get drunk, play in the golf carts, raid the ice cream freezers at camp, party round the lake or get lifts into town with the locals for more drinks and pizzas.
As long as you were in that bunk at 7am, ready for a full day at work, you could pretty much get away with it.

11. How the other half live

At my wealthy camp the kids could star in shows, learn magic, bike ride the Catskills, go windsurfing, jump on a river trampoline, ride water bikes, go up climbing walls, play on the zip wire, make films, make costumes, learn circus skills, or gymnastics, take radio lessons, learn to be a DJ, go horse riding and even have a go driving a speed boat.
These kids didn’t know they were born. When I was their age I’d rollerblade round the village for my six weeks of school holiday, trying to keep my Tamagotchi alive, and be happy with that.
One of the best things about working at summer camp is that you get to try all the activities too, for me most of them were for the first time ever.

12. How strong I am

I remember sitting at Heathrow Airport ready to leave for JFK and wondering what the hell I was doing. What had I signed up for?
My summer at camp was emotional. At times I just wanted to go home, at others I just wanted the kids to leave me alone for ten minutes. I remember one particular low point when we worked out how much we were being paid an hour for dealing with children at every turn, it worked out as a few cents.
Working so closely with my co-counselors in the bunk, getting to know people, following the rules as widely as possible without getting in trouble, making sure my bunk campers were ok, as well as the 60 or 70 I’d come into contact with in the day, and then parent’s day was a whole other experience.
It was exhausting, tough, hard work, and once the enthusiasm faded after surviving on so little sleep for so long it was also really hard work.
I kept with it though. I gave it all I had and still to this day had one of the best summers of my life that I’ll remember forever. I genuinely think everyone should do summer camp at least once. I went back again the next year!

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