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Camp counseling: a great resume builder.

When I walked over the hill and came upon the campgrounds a cool mountain breeze blew across my face sending goosebumps up and down my arms. It was a familiar chill, one which I had experienced on a regular basis ten years ago when I was a camp counselor. The goosebumps, mostly a physical reaction to the unaccustomed cold, dry July air, were enhanced by the excitement of renewing old relationships with both friends and nature.

The deep and lasting friendships and the acquired respect and love for the outdoors were intangible rewards from an experience that fostered my career in leisure services. Acceptance of the camp counseling position was a response to the inevitable interview question, "Do you have any experience?" I didn't realize at the time how much I would benefit, personally and professionally, from the endeavor.

The visit to Forest Lake Camp was more than a trip down memory lane. I was compelled to place in perspective the four years I was employed there. The camp counselor's position affords excellent training for a human services career. To go one step further, counseling offers preparation for any career in which one must interrelate with people. A counselor acquires many assets, including leadership skills, experience working with children, collaborative and community-building skills, increased confidence and empathy, and a large amount of life experience.

Leisure Services Preparation

Youth are the largest consumer group of leisure services. Entry-level jobs in our profession, such as recreation leader, require experience working with children. Counting hours, two months spent working at a residential camp is equivalent to a whole year in school (Mitchell, Crawford and Robberson, 1970). When I graduated from college I had accumulated approximately 3,500 hours or one and two-thirds years of experience working with youth.

The counselor's job includes teaching such skills as athletics, camping, arts, crafts, and outdoor education. More important, a counselor assumes the roles of foster parent, friend, confidant, and model (Mitchell et al., 1970). He or she will face situations involving homesickness, maladjustment and social conflict. The ability to communicate effectively with young people is an essential trait in a recreation leader or playground director.

A counselor at a sleep-away camp occasionally spends 24 hours a day with youngsters, requiring the individual to respond to their emotional needs with empathy (Mitchell et al., 1970). The capacity to understand how others feel is basic to our human service profession.

For example, my first job involved working with youth ages 12 through 19. Many of them were in the at-risk category. Their problems included unemployment, drug abuse, dropping out of school, peer pressure, and unstable family environments. Encouraging them to participate in recreation activities was a challenge, and establishing a trusting relationship was the key to their involvement. As a youth worker I had to empathize with them and provide realistic solutions. My counseling experience proved invaluable.

The at-risk population is expected to grow in the future (Mittelstaedt & Wallach, 1989). The ability to engange youngsters in positive pursuits will be in high demand. Experience in working with youth will improve the college graduate's chances of finding employment serving this special population.

Leadership Training

Camp counselors learn to be leaders. They are accountable for conducting classes, special events and cabin activities, and they must become proficient in program planning, promotion, supervision, and evaluation. As cabin counselors, they are expected to create an environment which encourages campers' participation and growth.

The ability to instill participation and cooperation is a leadership attribute. The most successful leaders are democratic. They know when to use discipline and take control. Most leaders will encourage group members to express their opinions and participate in self-governing activities. The democratic leader must not only be patient but must be willing to share power with youths.

In the text entitled, Camp Counseling, authors Ida B. Crawford, A. Viola Mitchell and Julia D. Robberson describe the ideal democratic group as "one which has learned to live together in comparative harmony while initiating, conducting, and evaluating its own program; it is willing to accept and abide by the results of its own decisions." The good camp counselor strives for such a situation, just as the successful administrator uses the democratic process with his staff. Learning to be a democratic leader takes time. The residential camp is an excellent place for the young professional to hone human relation skills and gain confidence.

Collaborative Skills

The camp experience is unique. Participants eat, sleep, work, and play 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Since it's a small community, counselors must work collaboratively with the administration, camp nurse, maintenance department, waterfront director, other staff, and kitchen help. This experience can't be duplicated in a normal 9-5 summer job.

These collaborative skills are useful, no matter what career is being sought. However, the skills are especially applicable to the leisure services field. For example, the director of a municipal parks and recreation department establishes a close working relationship with numerous community groups and governmental departments. Providing recreation services requires the administrator to work with school districts, civic organizations, advisory groups, private industry, commercial recreation providers, youth organizations and municipal departments of audit and control, general services, engineering, planning, purchasing, transportation, and security.

A feeling of community is common to both the camp experience and the leisure services field. This feeling comes from working with various people and organizations in pursuit of a common goal, where teamwork and loyalty are fostered on a daily basis. A sense of community, unfortunately, is being lost in society as neighborhoods and service organizations grow larger and increasingly become self-reliant. The ability to develop a sense of community in an organization is a valued asset.

Life Experience

Camp counselors have an opportunity to work with people from different areas of the United States and even the world. At Forest Lake Camp, where I worked with children and counselors from South America, Sweden, England and Germany, I learned to accept people different from myself. Living in close proximity with those from diverse cultures revealed that basically we are all alike on the inside. The experience helped eliminate prejudices I had acquired. It's easier now to relate to people from varied backgrounds.

The professional benefits derived from the camp counseling experience are considerable, but they are outweighed by the personal rewards of friendship, skill development, and living close to nature. Employment at a residential camp is similar to the experience of going away to college. Both settings encourage independence and enhance the development of permanent relationships. After four summers at Forest Lake Camp I had matured emotionally and had gained a few friendships that will last a lifetime. Living with people for two solid months builds character and camaraderie.

Camps also offer a wide variety of activities in which counselors can participate during their free time. What a great chance to acquire additional skills and encounter new experiences. While at camp I learned to play tennis, water ski and direct a play. I also improved my basketball game.

The camp environment is conducive to outdoor education. One of my fondest memories of camp was being able to view the star-studded sky without the intrusion of the city's artificial light. I was able to see the Milky Way and the Northern Lights on several occasions. Breathing fresh air and swimming in a cool mountain lake are pleasures that usually can't be enjoyed in an urban or suburban location.

The despoliation of the environment and the rapid development of open space have limited our opportunities to get close to nature. Many people grow up without ever seeing an animal in its natural habitat. A camp counselor has the chance to see nature's unsurpassed beauty, and gain a valuable understanding of the need for conservation and preservation.

Camp counseling is a superb experience that prepares one for the working world, especially human services vocations. The personal rewards of friendship while living in a natural environment make the endeavor more valuable. I received my greatest reward, 10 years later, during the last day of my visit. As 1 was talking to the head counselor, once a camper in my cabin 13 years earlier, a 12-year-old boy approached, asking him who I was. He responded by saying, "Oh, he was my mentor." He proceeded to tell the youngster that if it hadn't been for the good summer he enjoyed in my cabin he wouldn't have returned to camp. The chill I felt from the cold mountain air was suddenly replaced by an inner warmth. I had touched someone's life and it had made a difference.


Mitchell, A.V., Crawford, I.B., and Robberson, J.D. (1970). Camp Counseling. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Co.

Mittelstaedt, A. and Wallach, F. (1989). Trends Which Affect Population and Leisure Services in the Next Decade. (Mimeograph).

Jack R. Fass is recreation supervisor for the Town of Huntington Parks and Recreation Department in Huntington, New York. He was a cabin counselor, athletic director and head counselor for four years at Forest Lake Camp in Warrensburg, New York. This article was written for the owners and friends of Forest Lake Camp; it originally appeared in The Voice of the New York State Recreation and Parks Society.
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Fass, Jack R.
Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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