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First Person Don’t try to tell me that a camp counsellor is not a ‘real job’

Illustration by Rachel Wada

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Stop telling camp counsellors to get a real job. Each summer since I was 16 years old, I have worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week with two days off per month for less than $1/hour, and I’ve done it all with a marshmallow-roasting, camp-fire-song-singing smile on my face. Why isn’t that enough to help me land an entry-level job when I’m finished school?

Sure, my résumé, admittedly, with its scattering of volunteer gigs and camp work, more closely resembles Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree than a lush full complement of of retail and hospitality experience. Now that I’m 20, halfway done with my bachelor of arts degree and still “just” a camp counsellor, my peers and family members are a little concerned for my future career prospects. And honestly, so am I. Scrolling through job-recruitment sites feels like navigating a fun house: My expectations will be raised by the job title, then dashed when I don’t have the qualifications: “minimum three years retail experience” or “minimum one-year hostess experience.” But how about four years of facilitating dozens of children’s growth, helping them become functioning, kind, empathetic members of society? But you’re right, I probably wouldn’t be good at customer service.

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The reality is, in one summer season (from the end of June until early September), a camp counsellor learns just as much if not more than someone learns in three years of retail work or four years of waiting tables. Camp counsellors are inherently caregivers, customer-service representatives, teachers, leaders, team-members, coaches, cheerleaders, chefs, event planners, lifeguards and quasi-parents – and that’s all in the course of one day. So many people, when asked where they learnt any given life lesson or skill, will invariably and enthusiastically answer: “at camp!”

The type of summer camp I attended as a child and now work at is uniquely Ontarian: a true canoe-paddling, Johnny-Appleseed-singing, mosquito-net-emblazoned overnight camp. The problem, I’ve found, is that those who never had the privilege of attending such a camp don’t understand how far the experience extends past the image of campers gaily braiding each other’s hair and making friendship bracelets. Attending camp facilitates the growth of pro-social habits in the campers and, in the case of the counsellors, develops extremely employable traits.

Problem-solving is at the root of the camp experience for campers and counsellors alike. Where else would a group of 11-year-old city kids put their heads together and rig up a raccoon-proofing pully system in their cabin without adult involvement? Where else would you catch a group of 400 females aged 6 to 26 having a dance party in the dining hall while a few dauntless counsellors brave the black bear staking its claim on the compost bin? At camp, no one is told to solve a problem, because initiative and leadership, like the occasional snapping turtle, is simply in the water. Camp counsellors are innate conflict resolvers because living in tight quarters for three hot months with no fan the same eight people is, believe it or not, a magnet for conflict.

In my dead-end journey to find work with a camp-counsellor’s résumé, I’ve encountered the odd manager or owner who was also a camp counsellor. They know that camp counsellors are singlehandedly the hardest working, most positive and co-operative co-workers around. Counsellors know how to smile through being held down by a hoard of children and showered in paint and glitter (yes, this really happens), how to work 10-hour days in the sun and immense heat and still be at the beck and call of our campers until 11 p.m., and how to multitask more physical duties, such as hosing down the camp perimeter to prevent forest fires. None of this is easy work – it is exhausting, and it is at times frustrating, but it is also worth it.

As counsellors, we recognize the value in what we do, even if no one else will. We see it when a camper portages their canoe for the first time without help, when the little girl who was so afraid of heights at the beginning of the summer does a double-back-flip off the high diving board and her friends erupt in cheers as she had just won gold at the Olympics. Yes, we teach physical skills, but moreover, we teach life skills. Perseverance, co-operation, supporting others, thoughtfulness and curiosity are all synonymous with the camp experience. Try as you might, you cannot drive past the front gates of a Canadian summer camp without learning something.

Few recognize it, but camp counsellors are one of those few noble professions that pay little more than gas money, and that (as I have learned) does not add much to a resume. And yet – and more importantly – it is a wonderfully fulfilling job. We do it because we get to be simultaneously bosses and interns, mothers and sisters, campers and counsellors. What we do not teach the campers, they teach us. We watch our campers grow into counsellors, we watch them turn into people that, if I were in charge, I would surely hire. On the spot.

Phoebe Knight lives in Toronto.

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