The U.S. Camp Counselor Program is one of New Zealand’s most popular exchange programs, allowing post-secondary students, youth workers and teachers an opportunity to share Kiwi culture and learn about American history and culture at the same time. Annually more than 900 Kiwis travel to the U.S. to live and work as summer camp counselors throughout the United States. For more information, check out our Exchange Visitor Program page.
Camp has a special way of getting you out of your comfort zone – By Campbell Ross
(A version of this story was originally published on the Camp America NZ website.)
I heard from friends that their peers had gone overseas to be camp counselors, but I had no information about camp, and as a result I quickly assumed that it would be too difficult to get into. Years on, something as simple as an advertisement on social media and an itch to try something new had me browsing through the website, and within a day I had applied and been invited to the camp fair. Life at the time felt too predictable, and I needed change. I was hired weeks later at the camp fair by Camp Modin in Maine. To date this has been my most spontaneous decision, with the greatest outcome.
I was ecstatic. I had been working full time since I left school three years prior, so the feeling of not knowing what was around the corner and experiencing a lifestyle completely new to me was beyond exciting. I was already stepping out of my comfort zone by introducing myself to a soon-to-be friend on the plane who I noticed was wearing a camp shirt. The great thing about pushing yourself to do something completely new like working at a summer camp overseas is that you begin to step out of your comfort zone in all areas of your life. A lot of my change and growth is a result of going to camp.
Everybody’s experience arriving for the first time to camp will be different.
I must admit, for me it took time to adjust. Getting put into a camp with 140 other staff from all around the world is overwhelming at first and I found myself struggling with how to fit in and feel comfortable. However, my advice for anybody who may feel the same way – stick it out! It gets better. It would turn out that there are many others just as nervous and after a week of workshops, icebreakers and activities, I began to find my footing.
I had two key roles at camp. My first role was to teach kickboxing classes during the day. This would consist of teaching 3 – 6 classes a day to kids between the ages of 7 – 16. My second assigned role was to be responsible for a group of cheeky 12-year-old boys. This job was 24/7. We would all live together in one large bunk.
I went to camp on a whim, to gain experience and create change in my life. I came out with so much more. I ended up going back to camp for another four years and there is only one reason for this, the kids.
I can list my favourite moments at camp, but they are nothing extravagant. These are simple, happy memories that are still clear as day to me. Lying on the sailboat in the sun as two of my boys show me their newfound sailing skills around the lake, driving the kids to go camping whilst playing their favourite songs, or seeing a kid bring their own set of boxing gloves to camp the next year because they loved my activity that much. What means the most is realising how much of an impact I ended up having on the kids, and the responsibility I had to be a strong role model in their lives.
Teaching a variety of age groups every day taught me how to handle different groups of kids. I learned over time to cater and adapt to these groups; I couldn’t teach the same class to a group of 8-year olds as I would to a group of 15-year olds. Learning the wants and needs of different children was great experience for future endeavours. Although my job back home does not involve kids, I’m sure the experience will help with parenthood one day.
As rewarding as it is, camp can be a thankless job. You are constantly responsible for the safety and wellbeing of the kids and have little to no time to yourself. My advice is to use the time that you are given off wisely to unwind, explore life outside of camp and enjoy yourself. You’ll find that not long after, you will be missing the kids and wanting to get back to camp.
My proudest moment was the last night of camp during my 4th summer. My kids were 16 – 17 years old and it was their final night at camp as campers forever. At this point, the boys and girls had come together as one bunk for their final year, so I was looking after both boys and girls. We all sat together and reflected on our time at camp, some kids had been together for the past 9 summers, for myself I had been with them for 4 summers. When I think about it, that’s 8 months of their lives that I practically raised them. By this point, we were family and still are to this day. I didn’t feel like their counsellor but more an older sibling. It was an extremely proud moment to recap all the memories we had together, and there were many tears all round.
The experience, knowledge and growth I have gained from the 4 summers I’ve spent at camp is unlike anything else I have been through in my life. You cannot truly understand it until you’ve experienced it. Camp has a special way of getting you out of your comfort zone and allowing you to be your true self. As cliché as it may sound, I’ve never felt more myself than at camp. Do not take your job lightly; the kids are looking to you as a role model, and they aspire to be like their counsellors. I received a message from one of my kids not so long ago who is 18 years old now. He told me that he just began his new job working for a sports summer day camp. He told me that during his interview, he was asked if he had any role models in his life and he replied, “my counsellor Campbell”. I will never forget that message.
Some of my closest friends to date are my co-counsellors who live all around the world. I have close relationships with many of my kids and their families that I maintain to this day. I can travel to many parts of the world and visit people I care about. The bonds I have established through camp are life long and there is no better feeling than catching up with old friends from camp and reminiscing about the times we shared. My campers are 18 years old now, I started with them when they were just kids and we will forever be a part of each other’s lives.