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, checkout our Exchange Visitor Program page.
My Summer Camp Experience – By Gaby Vita
(A version of this story was originally published on the IEP NZ website).
Gaby Vita is a veteran summer camper who knows everything there is to know about going to camp. Gaby’s passion for pushing others to experience the indescribable experience of going to summer camp is infectious and she agreed to put her experience into words by answering some questions. Read on and get inspired to step outside of your comfort zone!
How many camps have you been to and where? Did you go to different camps each time or the same camp each time?
I only went to one camp – Camp Vacamas in New Jersey. I always had the intention to try different camps but after my first summer was complete in 2014, I just had to go back. The children at my camp were incredible and as it was a camp for underprivileged kids, I knew I was making a difference. Everyone has an expectation of what camp is going to be like but the truth is it will always be way different. After our first couple of weeks at camp, a group of us were sat in the staff room and we were talking about what camp was like. One of the girls mentioned the following quote which fits camp perfectly:
From the inside looking out, you’ll never be able to explain it.
From the outside looking in, you’ll never be able to understand it.
So just experience it, and love it!
Did you work in a specialised position or as a general camp counsellor?
My first year in 2014 I was hired as a lifeguard which was a specialised position. I spent most of my day teaching the children how to swim and playing games to get them comfortable with the water. I only actually spent 1-2 hours each day standing on post as a lifeguard. It turned out to be what I thought as the BEST JOB at camp. My second year I was asked to be head lifeguard so I had a little more responsibility helping the new lifeguards with activities and swim lessons and by my third year I was the waterfront director. This was my favourite year at camp as I could add my own little spark to how the waterfront was run. I was in charge of 14 wonderful lifeguards and together we created new and fun activities for everyone on the lake. As the waterfront director I also got my own cabin to sleep in which was a nice bonus.
What do you miss most about going to camp?
I truly miss everything about camp. People say if you love your job, you will never work a day in your life. With camp, this is true. It didn’t feel like a job at all, I was part of camp. I joined in the activities, I met loads of new friends and I helped the children have the most incredible summer of their lives. If there was one thing that really stood out, it was the look on a child’s face when they finally master a skill they have been practising for days. I had one child in my swim lesson who was terrified of the water, he kicked and screamed and refused to get in. After working with him for nearly two weeks and getting him used to the water he finally got in and was always the last one back out. He went home and told his mother that swimming was his favourite activity at camp and she couldn’t believe it. He was the first in his family to be able to swim. And those sort of memories stay with you forever!
What was the most challenging part of Camp and how did it feel to overcome that challenge?
The hardest part of camp initially was the first few days of my first year. I got to camp, having never been to America before, and didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t really know what my job was going to involve and other than watching the parent trap I’d never seen a summer camp before. I was quite homesick as it had been my 21st birthday in the first week of camp and obviously no one knew me. I told one of the other lifeguards that I was turning 21 and what happened over the next two days shocked me. I woke up in the morning with a 21st banner in my room. When I got to the dining hall my chair was tied with balloons. At dinner time, everyone stopped half way through their meal to sing me happy birthday and to top it off, during our last part of orientation that evening my supervisor brought me out a huge cake to share with all my fellow lifeguards. It turned out to be a pretty special birthday all because I found the courage to speak with that one girl who made all this happen.
What would be the first thing you would do if you went back to Summer Camp in the future?
If I were to go back, I would start my trip with a day or two getting lost in New York. At camp a lot of returners are usually there together in the first few days which was a perfect time to catch up with all my friends I hadn’t seen since last year. I would also go to meadtown just down the road from our camp and get a bacon and cream cheese blueberry bagel – they were amazing!
How do you think being a camp counselor has changed you both personally and professionally?
The funny thing is – I got home from camp my first year and the first thing my mum said to me was ‘you are a much nicer person now’. I was a bit shocked because I didn’t realise I was that bad a person before I left hahaha. Camp definitely made me appreciate the little things in life more. You realise not everyone is as lucky to have the food we eat each day, to have the opportunities to experience new activities or to have the chance to be surrounded by amazing people that care about you. It opens up your eyes to a whole new world. It also made me realise there were so many places in the world I wanted to see and have now been exploring the world and living in a new country with friends I met at camp.
Having camp counselor positions on my CV has definitely helped in job interviews, not only does it prompt a great conversation with someone, but it shows your passion for something important, your patients working with children for three months straight and experience working in a different country with multiple nationalities.
Basically, you’d be silly not to experience camp at least once in your life!