Helping Camp Counselors Understand The Power They Have in One Simple Exercise

Helping counselors understand how powerful they really are

If you take a look at the picture on the right, there's a good chance you don't recognize anyone unless you happened to work at Camp Johnsonburg from some time between 1996-2005 or so. The camper with the orange circle around his head is me, and the counselor on the bottom row is the counselor who made me a camp person. His name is Malik.

My camp story has many distinct chapters, but the most significant is probably the one that began on the last night that I was eligible to be a "regular camper" at Johnsonburg when I was growing up.

That night was proceeding the same way the last night of many camps go - people staying up late, laughing about the week, and dreaming on the future. It was actually the last night of the last session of camp, and the whole camp was abuzz with people trying to wring as much camp as they could out of the last few hours together in our summer sanctuary. For whatever reason I was between conversations, sitting alone at around 11pm.

Two of Malik's friends walked into our unit (our little arrangement of platform tents & our fire circle) to hang out with him while the campers were staying up with each other. Malik walked past me at the camp fire, saw me alone, gave them a "1 minute" sign, and sat down next to me.

"James," he began, "How's it going?"

"Going? Oh. Good," I said.

It was going alright. One kind of weird thing about me as it pertains to my space in the camping world is that I never really had a 10/10 camper experience. I was always sort of on the periphery of the core group of friends in my units, and started attending camp very late in the game compared to many of them. When this story takes place, I had only been to camp 3 times, and only ever for 1 week at a time. Camp was better than home, but I would never have called it "magical."

Until that night.

"Are you going to come back as an LT next year?" Malik asked. LT's were leadership trainees - counselors in training, basically.

"No," I responded. More confession time. I was painfully shy as a young person. It's tough to tell from that picture, but I had really bad acne, and was extremely thin. I didn't do things like go up and talk to strangers, or stand up in front of groups. Lead songs? Lead games? No freaking chance.

"That's too bad," he answered. "I think if you wanted to be, you could be one of the best counselors this camp has ever had."

I looked up, and expressed my disbelief. "What? I'm not... I couldn't be a counselor," I replied.

He seemed to get semi-mad, and he started tearing up. This guy who had been larger than life to me looked me in the eye and said, "Do you think being a counselor means getting up in the dining hall and leading crazy songs? Anyone can do that, if they really want to. Nah, being a good counselor means having heart. Caring about people. You can't teach that. And you have it. If you don't believe me, just come back for the LT program next year and find out."

I sat there shell-shocked for a second, and managed to come up with, "OK."

He went to hang out with his friends, and I sat there thinking. I guess I had to come back the following year.

I did - the above picture was actually from when I was a leader in training. Malik happened to be my counselor once again. I'd ultimately go on to be a counselor at that camp, and ultimately an age group director (or unit leader, in many camps' lingo), and then the summer program director.

We all have a camp story, right? So what makes this story (and your camp story) valuable to other staff?

The fragility of our camp lives

I love to share this story with my summer staff members because of the conclusions one can draw from it. There I was, sitting at the camp fire on the last night of summer camp. At that moment, let's say 10:58pm, my life had a certain trajectory. The following summer I'd have continued working at the ShopRite, and goofing off with my high school friends on the weekends. I'd have gone off to college, and done some unknown thing with my life. I wouldn't have met my wife, or the best man in my wedding, or my current business partner, or any of the people here at Go Camp Pro. The thousands of kids that I've worked with, the conferences I've spoken at, the lives I'd like to think I've impacted - all of that goes up in smoke.

And it all boils down to the decision one man, Malik, made in that split second. He was en route to hanging out with his friends, but something told him to put in 5 more minutes with one camper on one log.

From 10:58pm to 11:03pm, one person gently guided my life a few degrees in a different direction. "Why don't you come back to the LT program? I think you'd be great for it." And, poof.

That's the magic of summer camp.

Our lives are these incredibly fragile journeys through time and space. We walk through them, largely unaware of where the big turning points are. Often times we need years and years of hindsight to reflect on the one little thing that needed to go this way or that way to bring us to where we are today.

Now, these moments are pretty rare. But if you're a camp person, you've likely seen how they tend to have a much greater concentration at summer camp. Some of this happens just because we show up. I'm not sure my counselor was ever trained in having the conversation he had with me. In fact, I'm pretty sure he wasn't. But reflecting on this instance in the many, many times I have since that day, it eventually occurred to me - what if we could train counselors to (authentically) replicate this experience for others?

Great power, great responsibility

When we're planning for summer camp, we often try to plan for the "big moments" of camp. Carnivals, big games, themed meals, and so on. But most of us would agree that the great power of camp comes from the small moments. Malik and I on a log at 11 o'clock at night. So how do we train our counselors to increase the frequency of those moments?

We make it about storytelling. We build a camp fire, sing some songs, and then I'll get up and share the story I just shared with you. I then invite other staff members to get up and share their stories as well. They can be about one turning point that had them wind up at camp when they wouldn't have otherwise, or a special moment they remember at camp, or a time where they felt seen and heard in a way that they hadn't before. As a quick tip - I always find at least 2 volunteers before hand, just so I know I can get the ball rolling with minimum awkwardness.

When the interest in sharing stories start to ebb, I'll get up and leave them with the following thoughts.

Something along the lines of:

"We've heard so many stories tonight where one moment, just one moment totally changed the trajectory of somebody's life. (I'll insert some examples here). But here's the thing - these don't have to happen by accident.

"Many kids will be coming to camp this summer who have never had a moment like I had with Malik. They've never had someone sit down next to them, look them in the eye, and help them to feel important.

"So I'd like to challenge you to do just that. If you come across a camper this summer who you think actually would make a great counselor some day, I'd love if you took a private moment to tell them. If you see someone struggling, sit down and listen to them. If you see someone who is excited, try and let go, and share their excitement with them.

"As a summer camp counselor, you have the incredible power to change the course of someone's life. That power will be available to you every single day. Some days you won't feel like using it, or you won't remember to. But I can promise you this - the better you get at remembering to use it, and the more confident you are in exercising it, the more fulfilling this job will become. I've now had some version of the conversation Malik had with me hundreds of times, and I never regretted it a single time.

"And who knows - 20 years from now someone might stand up in front of a camp fire and talk about how you looked them in the eye, and how that changed everything. And they might not. But isn't it worth taking a shot to find out?"