Camp Jobs Change Lives

Summer Camp and Outdoor Education staff talk about how their jobs at camp have made them better people, better professionals, and better parents.

Be part of Katie's Interview Project

What did you learn about leadership from your camp supervisors?

What did camp leaders do to create a community of support and autonomy?

What leadership strengths did you learn at camp and how did you use them?

How has working at camp changed your life, personally or professionally?

Words are like toothpaste

Interview with Jean Spindler, Youth Programs Manager at the Ann Arbor Art Center, and former staff member at Kingsley Pines Camp

One of the biggest things I learned about leadership from the Directors is to allow people to make mistakes. Instead of a big, dramatic response to a mistake, the Camp Director just asked what was going on, pointed out what didn’t make sense, and asked what was needed to fix it.  They talked through it with you and helped you know how to handle it.  I’m sure they had opinions, but they didn’t share them.  That calm, non-judgmental approach worked really well.  Because of their support, you could take ideas and explore them.  You could change things around and improve or grow the program. 

There was a lot of time spent setting the tone of the environment.  In this case, it was an atmosphere of unity.  We were on the same page and there for the same reasons.  At staff meetings, we spent time being reminded of the important work we were doing every day for the campers.  We were valued as mentors.  We got tips for how to handle things and how to continue doing a better and better job.  We continued to gain skills and to improve throughout the summer.  There was huge support for us as counselors.  Even when there were situations that couldn’t be changed, we knew that people would be there to listen and to help us.

My job taught me how to think on the fly, how to be prepared and thing ahead, how to find a way to make things work with what you have.  Organization means things go smoothly and are less stressful.  So, you need to think things through and figure out how to do them in the most efficient way.  It’s a work in progress… you get better and better with each innovation.  It also taught me to roll with the punches and not to take things personally.    You can’t fixate on every little thing- fix it, move on, and then forget about it.  Focus on everyone around you- look to see who needs support and help them out.

As a leader, I focus on giving my staff power and ownership.  I’m a big believer in a strong staff training program.   When I plan training, I help staff anticipate everything they can as a way to avoid situations they don’t want to experience.   I try to mirror what I saw at camp: I allow my staff to try things out and to make mistakes.  I help them focus on action-consequences and teach them to think 10 steps ahead, because it’s way easier to do prevention than to fix an issue.  If people take on a job, it matters to them that it’s fun and that they’re involved.  I’ve learned the importance of oversight- trust people to do their job, and then check to see if it’s done right and give them feedback.  I can’t overstate the importance of in-the-moment feedback.

I’ve also learned not to say something without thinking first.  I learned that the hard way.  Now I play the question game and lead my staff to find the answers.  I don’t take what they say personally, I just listen to them.  I’m careful with words and the way people perceive what I’m saying.  Words are like toothpaste- you can’t put them back in once they’re out.   

You need to invest in your staff.  Never give up on people.  Continue to help them grow and learn.  Treat them right as a worker and a person.  Treat everyone fairly and value your staff.  Don’t say things without thinking.  Welcome staff back when they really want to return.  Wish them well and help them in their next endeavor when they move on.

Acceptance, not judgment

Interview with Molly Wilson, 3rd/4th grade teacher and leadership staff member at YMCA Camp Collins

To me, leadership means to follow the rules, to do the right thing, to act with integrity.  One of my leaders at camp was a huge mentor and inspiration for me.  They trusted the people around them and the team as a whole.  They trusted people who wanted to lead in totally different ways.  There was room for people to try things out, to make mistakes and feel okay about them, and to learn from their experiences.  They led by example and were always the first to do whatever was needed.  They did jobs no one wanted (like cleaning the bathroom) and never complained once. 

When it comes to my relationships with staff, I create open-door communication.  People know they are welcome to talk with me, to check in about what they’re doing well or need to improve.  They also are welcome to give me suggestions on what I can do better.  We work side-by-side.  It’s a partnership.  Where there’s no open door, there’s miscommunication and people question why lots of things aren’t happening.  The rumor mill starts and that culture trickles down to the campers. 

Great leaders are also organized.  They are prepared in advance for any and all situations.  When things are disorganized, people have to work harder to make things happen.  I work really hard to be very organized and on top of things.  I’m behind the scenes doing everything others don’t want to do.  I make sure none of the pieces drop.  I anticipate what could go wrong and set things up for success.  I identify campers and staff who might struggle and give them better tools.  Often 18 and 19 year olds get frustrated or overwhelmed.  They think current challenges can never change.  My job is to help them see more possibilities.

I came into camp as the shyest person you could ever meet.   I wouldn’t get onstage at a campfire.  Working at camp was about my own growth- getting comfortable with people, developing confidence, becoming a leader.  It helped me immensely as a teacher and coach.  Every teacher would benefit from working at camp.  An increasing number of our students come in with lots of trauma and anxiety.  They’re not ready to learn.  Camp helps you understand kids better.  It gives you a chance to see them in a different atmosphere.  Your role is to talk with them, to build relationships, to help them cope.  Being in the classroom doesn’t always allow for that relationship building, but we can create the time.  Helping my class feel like a community makes a huge difference.  For the first month of school, we spend a lot of time doing team building activities like at camp. We work on acceptance and not judgment.  We talk about the importance of each person’s unique qualities.  As a result, there’s not a lot of conflict.  When it does happen, we can talk through it, and the students handle it much more maturely than you’d expect from their age group.  Our job as a community is to bring out the best in everyone and to notice what each person adds to the team.