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Camp Counselor

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The great outdoors, water, kids, campfires -- there is a lot about summer camp that sounds appealing. But potential volunteers should know that camp counseling is no walk in the park.

"It's not a vacation," says Andrew Johnson. He's a counselor with Camp Smile-A-Mile, a camp for kids with cancer in Birmingham, Alabama.

"There have been times driving home at the end of the week where I've had to pull over to sleep. You're up at 7:30 for bunk check and breakfast. After the kids go to bed, we're up late talking until all hours."

That said, Johnson says he is hooked on camp.

"I like it. I love it! I like the people, I love the kids, the other counselors. There's a big sense of family."

There's a big demand for volunteers who want to work with special needs campers. That's according to the American Camp Association (ACA).

Church camps and camps serving people with physical or mental disabilities often need volunteers, says Gordie Kaplan. He's a member of a camping association.

In a recent survey of its members, the ACA found that religious camps employ, on average, 25 volunteers. Not-for-profit camps employ an average of 14 volunteers.

"You get a lot back for what you put into it," says Julie Miller. She's a camp counselor who first went to camp on a YMCA scholarship when she was six.

"For the most part, our counselors have a camp background," says YMCA camp director John Riddell. "All our group leaders and some senior staff will have some sort of CPR or first aid certification."

Jennifer Queen is the program director for Camp Smile-A-Mile. She says she needs more than 30 volunteers for about 70 children during a week-long camp session.

"Some are assigned to two or three campers, others do just arts or crafts. So, it takes that many [volunteers] to make the week run smoothly," she says.

"When I first went, the first five minutes I was there I was a little uncomfortable," says Kate Emmerich. She volunteers at the United Cerebral Palsy Land of Lincoln camp in Springfield, Illinois. "Then I realized they were normal kids, they just have a disability."

At several camps each summer, Emmerich works one-on-one with a child. "Seeing those kids' faces when they've had a good week -- it's great!" she says.

Bedtime away from home is a traumatic experience for many children.

Miller works with children at Camp Howdy. One year, one child was so upset about being away from home that he threw up.

"After a couple nights, he was adamant he wanted to go home. But his parents really wanted him to accomplish this, so I went and talked to him," she says.

Miller told him it was OK to be homesick, and that it was normal.

Her words of comfort must have worked because two days later, when the boy's little brother started to feel homesick too, he brought him to her. "Julie, you helped me, so I know you can help him," he said confidently.

"That was just a really rewarding experience," she says.

Johnson remembers comforting a young camper who was having trouble sleeping.

"He had leukemia, and was about six or seven," he says. "He wouldn't go to sleep, so I went to sit with him and he said, 'This is my special toothbrush. I have to use this because I have leukemia.'"

The little camper proceeded to show Johnson his special hairbrush, shampoo and a myriad of other special things required by his illness.

"It helped me realize how important camp is," reflects Johnson. "Here, they don't have to be special. They are just kids. They can run and play and just be kids."

Johnson says helping kids be kids does wonders for your self-esteem.

Fellow counselor Tracey Edwards says her experience working with kids with cancer has made her want to be a pediatrician. "It has shaped me so much," she says.

A recent experience reminded Edwards of the difference she makes as a camp counselor.

She visited a former camper -- a little girl -- who is dying. They talked about the summer two years earlier when the girl had been well enough to go to camp.

"That experience is still special for her," says Edwards. "And that's probably the most important thing -- creating those warm and loving memories for those kids. And you know, you get that love back."

How to Get Involved

Many camps advertise their need for volunteers. "I saw a little note in the paper," says Emmerich.

Johnson heard about Camp Smile-A-Mile's need for volunteers while watching the camp's promotional video in high school.

Some camps are just waiting for you to call them. "If people want to volunteer they should call specific camps they might be interested in," recommends Paul Grossinger. He's a member of a camping association.

To find a camp near you, check out "camps" in your local yellow pages, ask around at your church or synagogue, or search the Internet.

Since counselors are in a position of trust with children, they can expect to go through a careful screening process.

"At Camp Smile-A-Mile, they have to submit to a fingerprint check," explains Queen. "They also need to leave three references, which I can check."

Queen says a lot also depends on a personal interview with the volunteer applicant. "It doesn't matter how good they look on paper, I go by my gut reaction," she says.


American Camp Association
Check out the resources for camp counselors

Camp Smile-A-Mile
Learn more about this camp for kids with cancer in Birmingham, Alabama

Camp Counselors USA
Check out the international programs

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