Courage Changes Careers - An Interview with Sylvia van Meerten

The Summer Camp Society Interviews. This interview is the second of a series from Sarah and Jack interviewing change making camp professionals and sharing their advice because great leaders make great camps

Sylvia van Meerten

Sylvia  is a starter and a finisher. She is a founder of Camp Tall Tree, Chasing Summer, Stomping Ground, and Empower Autism. She has ran Frost Valley's Mainstream at Camp Program, worked at the Autism Society of North Carolina, and was the executive director of Dragonfly Forest. Through her work Syl challenges the status quo and promotes self-efficacy, happiness, and inclusion.

How did you get started in camping?

I got to know people that loved Camp Al-Gon-Quian, and worked there and loved it! I was a counselor but I am one of those people that has some would call it a “bossypants factor”.  So when I get involved in whatever kind of project, I always feel like, “I could help with that part!”.  It’s not usually coming from a “you’re doing it wrong” place but a “this could be easier” place.  


So, I end up getting elevated because people want me to do it rather than just telling them how to do it.  I ended up being more involved with the management.  When I left Al-Gon-Quian, I ended up working for Scott at a day camp in Ithaca.  I was an EMT as well so I was the camp nurse.  That helped me feel even more like there are ways to run things that’s more fun, even the medical part that’s risk-oriented, so it doesn’t have to be a burden for the kids who are involved or the adults who are involved.  It inspired me that the administrative process of fun is still important...that you impact the fun by making the admin easier because it means more people are free to participate.

From there we worked at Frost Valley YMCA, and that’s kind of the same deal--I was registered to be a counselor but one of the village chiefs was a last minute drop out so someone asked me if I would be the village chief...but I was really bad at it because I missed the training because I was just planning to be a counselor and school wasn’t done yet!  It was for their special needs program.  They had had the same village chief for 1 milion years and it had been run the exact same way for 1 million years.  I just did not know yet how you had to be about coming in somewhere new!  I didn’t soften the changes very much.  It  was a good learning experience for me because I wasn’t investing in positive staff relationships but I learned how to do that through messing that up.

I worked in environmental education at Frost Valley and eventually moved from being the special needs coordinator to being the program director.  That went much better because I knew more about investing in the staff.  

I stopped going to camp for awhile and worked for some other special needs camp in North Carolina.  And then I went to Dragonfly and started the special needs program there, and Scott and I started Camp Tall Tree in 2013.

What is something about you that makes you good at your job?


I would say that I have a weird combination of wanting to anxiously plan and advance but also that it doesn’t bother me if the plan changes.  I feel like I usually get a leg up on organizing things well, but if things go terribly wrong in the middle of the summer, it’s OK.  I kind of like it when things get hectic and crazy and it doesn’t feel overwhelming for me.

And I really like college students.  Although you really can’t depend on them all the time, I just really like their energy, perspective and humor. And it doesn’t bother me that they’re pretending to be adults but they aren’t really--I just like that!!

What is something that was really tough for you at the beginning?

I think that it was definitely what I said earlier, trying to make close relationships with people that I was supposed to be in charge of...but I think also feeling open to feedback.  I totally know how to act like I’m open to feedback but, especially early on, it would really bother me/   I would think about it a lot because I so badly wanted to be perfect!  I would just feel like as soon as somebody would say something that I should do differently, I would feel like I should have already known that ! I would feel dumb.

I guess as my personal relationships and my romantic relationship changed, and I would get negative feedback in general, I started to feel differently about growing and growing is not needy and how it’s OK to hurt and it doesn’t take that long to feel better.  That helped me feel that feedback was more of a gift.

What is something you are working on getting better at right now?


I’m trying to learn to slow down a little bit and not just jump to try everything.  For awhile, Scott and I had this motto that was “do it now!” but that was a big learning curve for us for awhile.  At Al-Gon-Quian, things moved really slowly.  Changes were discussed for Scott and I moved into this idea that you could just decide what you wanted to do and just do it right then.  Someone needs some feedback on something they’re doing wrong, do it right now before the next meal happens!  Do it!  If you need to air some business with a boss, just do it!  Don’t wait.  We have a new idea, we want to start Camp Tall Tree, let’s just do it right now because if we wait we’ll just be at this point next year!  But, what I am now working on is how to take my time and do it right-er the first time.  Instead of just jumping in and learning from doing, I’m learning how to prep in a different way.

Why did you decide to make camping your profession, and what keeps you going?


I think camping is the ultimate recreation experience, and that recreation overall offers kids a chance to get good ratings in a category even if don’t usually get to--it’s not academic and the focus isn’t on a responsiveness to adult authority.  I think that kids who aren’t good at academics and aren’t natural adult pleasers aren’t good at school, and giving them a whole category to build their self esteem in is some of the most important work we can do.  

I think happiness matters so much more than we are acting like it matters.

The reason I think that is I think people who are happy and confident have ownership over their adult lives, and those are the people who can make a difference in the world.  I think happiness matters so much more than we are acting like it matters.  I think we as adults, we say that happiness matters a lot, but we don’t do anything to set things up for kids so that it matters.  The things that make most people happy are recreational.  We expect that recreation will happen in the outskirts; or in between the things that we have to schedule.  And that just isn’t fair!  It isn’t surprising that more people aren’t happy.  We know that being outside, being with our friends, laughing and growing our emotions make us happy, but we don’t plan to spend any time doing that---but camp does plan for that!  There’s a conspiracy of adults at camp to make kids happy...and that’s just a big present that we give to the kids who come.

What is your advice for someone who is a new camp pro?

Get a mentor.  And try out some different camps--either visiting or working at some different camps.  But finding a mentor who is a generation or a half-step up from you in terms of age or experience, and then visiting that person in the summer, having some ongoing phone calls with them--I think that’s powerful.

Anything else?

I think that a lot of young people in any profession but especially in youth development will have a couple of areas of fear: Things they are worried that they don’t do well at or have messed up in the past.  People might spend quite a bit of energy avoiding those fear areas, but there’s just no reason to do that.  There’s nothing truly beyond people’s brain capability and all that spending time being worried about that and, letting your fear seep into the usual young person fear that people will see them as a fraud-adult, is a cowardly approach.  It makes you play small.  If you approach whatever you’re bad at with a little bit of courage and have someone help you learn it, it changes your whole career trajectory because you don’t have to feel like a fraud.

The Summer Camp Society is a semester-long learning cooperative designed and facilitated by Sarah Kurtz McKinnon and Jack Schott. We empower emerging leaders to give all kids the best possible camp experience. Learn more.