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For the rest of my life I’ll be making sure that everyone in the group is accounted for.

What I Really Learned as a Sleep Away Camp Counselor

For the rest of my life I’ll be making sure that everyone in the group is accounted for.

By Elizabeth Rourk, University of New Haven


When I worked in retail, at the end of every day I went home, maybe told a story about an annoying customer and went on with my life.

As far as summer jobs go, retail was the epitome of fine, nothing terrible but definitely nothing special. But my freshman year of college, when I realized I was getting too close to adult life and real jobs for comfort, I decided to spend the next summer as a camp counselor in the Pocono Mountains. Going into that summer, I had no idea how much one summer job would impact my life.

Just four days after leaving camp, I moved back into school for my sophomore year. I was so ready to be back with my friends and away from camp food that I barely had time to reflect on my summer.

It wasn’t until we were two weeks into school and my roommate sarcastically said “Liz, did you work at camp this summer?!” for the umpteenth time, that I realized just how much I talked about camp. But spending my entire summer there, I had a lot of stories to tell.

I laughed every time one of my friends would comment how they “lived” at their summer job, because unlike them, I really did live at my summer job.

For eight weeks I wore gym shorts, tennis shoes and a staff shirt every day, and didn’t have much more than a sleeping bag with me. Even my phone had to stay in the staff lounge. No more were the days of forgetting about work once I was off the clock, because for those two months, I was never off the clock.

Lessons You Only Learn as a Sleep Away Camp Counselor

Another friend of mine worked at a day camp and was excited to swap counselor stories with me. Although I know she worked hard to ensure that her kids had a good time during the day, being a counselor at a day camp is not the same as at a sleep away camp.

I knew what my campers were doing every moment of the day. I knew their favorite foods, when they were overtired and when they needed a hug. For the summer I spent with them, my co-counselors and I were the closest thing they had to parents. Although it was a lot of work, I wouldn’t trade the memories I had with those kids for anything.

Don’t get me wrong—when the day came, I was more than ready to leave camp. I couldn’t wait to wake up to something other than music from the loudspeaker at eight in the morning, and was looking forward to having cell phone service at all hours of the day.

I knew I would miss my coworkers, who in just two short months had become my second family, and as crazy as my campers were, I knew I would miss them too. What I didn’t know is all of the lessons I learned at camp that would stay with me long after I drove away on that dirt road for the last time.

Earlier this semester my roommate and I took a pseudo-impromptu trip to New York. The night before, I had my picked out my clothes and folded them up at the end of my bed, along with a bag packed for the next day.

Our schedule for the day was typed out on my phone, and I was careful to call the cab in plenty of time to get us to the train station. It was just the two of us and we really didn’t have to be in a hurry, but I thought if I broke the first rule of being a camp counselor—prepare, prepare, prepare—that the world might actually come to an end.

After picking up our tickets at the box office I put them both in an envelope and into my inner coat pocket, refusing to take them out until we were at the show. Even though my roommate is an adult and doesn’t have a habit of losing things, being responsible for eight kids at an amusement park left it engrained in me to always hold on to everyone’s tickets.

Walking to the theatre from the New York Public Library, two tourists asked us if we knew where their theatre was. Since they were going to the same show we were, we told them they could just follow us.

As my roommate, a born and raised New Yorker, dodged through crowds of people expertly avoiding the scaffolding, I followed behind, constantly turning my head making sure we hadn’t lost the tourists we were escorting. I didn’t even realize I was doing it until my roommate started laughing and asked if the whole group was accounted for.

The thought of losing a child in a crowd still terrifies me enough to count heads whenever I’m in a group.

Even though there were three counselors in our bunk, between days off and working in our program areas, more than once I was alone to wrangle our eleven campers. I’m not sure how many people have ever tried to keep up with the energy of eight year olds that ate donuts for breakfast, but it’s quite the task, especially while making sure the stragglers of the group make it out of the cabin.

The one time of day that I wouldn’t have to count heads was at five every evening. The moment I heard “Shower” blasted on the loud speaker, I knew to stand to the side of the porch so I wouldn’t get trampled in pursuit of the coveted first shower of shower hour.

Having sixty minutes to get eleven girls cleaned, dried and in new outfits for dinner gave me a whole new appreciation for the beauty of lying around in a towel after a twenty-five minute shower.

Another appreciation I gained was bedtime. The glorious hour when the lights were finally turned off, and I could finally take my own shower and climb in bed. Nothing like eight hours working in the camp theatre, then chasing my campers around the rest of the day to gain an appreciation for sleep, even on a two-inch thick mattress atop a wooden bunk.

As great as bedtime was, every morning I was ready for new adventures, because it was those adventures that taught me the (sometimes strange) life lessons of being a sleep-away camp counselor that have stayed with me long after my watch tan has faded.

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