Last year, I decided to bite the bullet and worked on an American summer camp for six weeks as a younger girls counsellor. It was simply incredible – I worked harder than I have ever done, I slept better than I had ever done and I met friends for life; I would recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat. It’s like your living in an ITV drama series – there’s camp romances, staff leaving or being sacked, people travelling all over the place, rogue animals, ambulances left right and centre and certainly bad weather.
I had completed a year of summer camp the year before too but that was a day camp and significantly different. I was also an activity counsellor so spent most of my day swinging from ropes and jumping in lakes instead of constantly making sure I ended the day with the same number of children I started off with. However, last year this all changed. I was put in charge of a cabin of twelve girls aged between 9 and 12 and I have never felt more responsible in my life. The first day the campers arrived I was full of nerves. Maggie, the counsellor from the other adjoining cabin, and myself ran around the cabin getting it all ready for the arrival of the first member of Cabin 21. I had drawn a jungle theme all over the bathroom wall and the cabin itself whilst she had filled her side full of paper bunting then we eagerly talked to each other as we watched campers starting to march towards us with their sleeping bags and parents. I had to look after these twelve mini people and get them to the other end of the week safely. More importantly, I had to try to make a bed in front of their on looking parents.
A week earlier I had been stood in Heathrow Airport and my mum was about to say good-bye again for another three months. Numbers of people my age flooded the airport in ‘Camp America’ t-shirts and I avoided them as much as possible until I was seated on the plane. I was nervous, I was unsure and, most importantly, I was still sad to be leaving home for three months. Several Camp America participants had huddled around me and several seemed to be going to same camp, I was in luck! And I’m still in touch with some of them today. Shortly after we had the safety talk I fell asleep and waited to set off, I hated the feeling off taking off and sleeping made me very much avoid it. Sleeping also made me not realise we had a two-hour wait at Heathrow as one of our slides has decided to inflate on its own. I woke up and we were still delayed slap bang in the middle of the runway. It seemed that day was going to involve a lot of waiting and we still hadn’t reached American passport control.
Camp, when we eventually got there, was lovely. A lake with wooden cabins, playground, woodland, tennis courts and campfires set around it. I had walked into the British imagination of summer camps. I was waiting for Lindsay Lohan to pop out and try to get her parents back together. The other counsellors then began to flood in and it was very overwhelming – something I later see as how the campers must have felt on their first day. Co-counsellors met co-counsellors, friends were reunited, family reunions began and internationals (as we were known) impressed with a simple British accent. All you had to say was ‘Harry Potter, Game Of Soccer’ in our accent and you had instant friends and love of your employer.
It was during training week that I started to bond with the people I’d spend the next six weeks with and made my first vital error – no sun cream. My face, back and chest fitted in with the tomatoes at Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart was camp counsellor heaven. It was off camp and a source of unhealthy junk food that you could keep stashed up for moments of both hunger and exhaustion. My bottom drawer became homage to American obesity and my dentist didn’t favour my regular visits to the camp tuck shop either. Who knew how different an American Kit Kat was?!
It was one morning when I volunteered for the morning assembly challenges that I was astounded at American snack foods. It was a Twinkie eating challenge. Who could eat the most in three minutes? As I got on the stage I was told, “Let me know if you’re going to be sick and I’ll grab the bin”. Great. Vomiting in front of two hundred people just after breakfast was not what I had in mind; the group before me just had to create a pyramid from soda cans. I had a pyramid of Twinkies – a roll of sponge stuffed to the brim with icing. They soon made your mouth dry but I once I’d started the competition I couldn’t stop. I had to gain the respect of my cabin and I certainly did as I won by a mouthful. I haven’t had another Twinkie since though and spent the rest of that day feeling very ill. It felt like the icing had managed to block every artery I had going. On the other hand, S’mores were a firm favourite – graham cracker, chocolate and marshmellows. They were loved by the kids and by the counsellors just as much. I made many friends the night I brought s’more making ingredients to the counsellor fire pit and, it turned out, s’mores were the only way to make Hershey’s chocolate taste manageable.
The kids themselves were great. A lot were from rough backgrounds sadly and that made everything you did so much more rewarding and worth it. It was always the little things too – I left notes on their beds to welcome them to the cabin to say how great they were doing at camp and I was thanked by numerous hugs. The same happened when I got them sweets from the tuck shop for doing well in the cabin clean up even though we never won or when you gave them balloons from Wal Mart. Every time you managed to get something or do something they wanted you got hugs too –taking the kids to the playground or arts and crafts den in counsellor hour also made the majority of them smile. The best feeling in the world though was always when you got begged to sit with them at lunch or dinner and when kids gave you their artwork or made you something. I started a gallery on the wall next to my bed and still have it today. One of my favourites is of a lion and an elephant I’d spent teaching one girl to draw and she brought me her versions to keep at the end of the week. It almost made me cry, as did saying goodbye to my first group of kids. That was heart breaking and partly because I was waiting to hear my name called and for my mum to be there. I had to wait another three months for that.
The kids that you really helped or the ones who returned several times or the ones who made you laugh and smile on a bad day were the campers I remember most. I always hoped they’d remember me too and when you got called “The Best Counsellor Ever!” or parents told you their kids didn’t shut up about you or returning campers were pleased to be back in your cabin, it made me grin for hours. Those sorts of things give your heart a lifetime of happiness.
The first week at camp there seemed to be a trend of sprained ankles and how Pokémon cards were popular in my day, having a wrapped bandage on your ankle was seen as the thing. I got to the point were I stopped my kids doing anything fun if they hurt there ankle and not being able to join in with the limbo stopped many in their tracks from complaining. However, I was asked to hold someone’s ankle wrap when they went to jump of the dock and another told me how her sister had held her ankle when she went swimming. It was at that point I realised these injuries weren’t calling out for 911. By week six most of my kids were offered a band aid at the most and I began to realise why most of primary school teachers gave out wet paper towels to solve any sort of injury.
Homesickness took its toll too. On the kids and on me as well – there was many a time were you wanted to ignore the tears and join in with the human version of Hungry, Hungry Hippos or play Capture The Flag instead of sit with your crying kids on the side-lines. Sometimes though, those moments were best for getting to know the campers and I found myself enjoying it more and more. I was shocked at any counsellor who managed to make it through any activity without an injury or an argument or raising their voice slightly. I couldn’t physically do the latter so often got one of the kid’s to be my foghorn and most of the time they were better. One of my kids ended up ripping a leech off their foot whilst I was stuck on the lake in a paddleboat – it’s times like that you hadn’t prepared for in the training week.
Camp songs were fantastic too. Hearing masses of people chanting “Thunderation!’ at Laugh With The Staff and starting it during quiet-time from the counsellor room and hearing the kids quietly start it back will be things I will never forget. As will Laugh With The Staff – were we did weekly skits. I rewrote a version of ‘It’s A Hard Knock Life’ for camp and ended up getting pied by the camp leader for the rest of my days there. I pied him back – it was war from the start and one of the most memorable sketches. The boy’s always took it too another level though with rotten milk, leftovers and sharing toothbrushes – something I’m glad the girls never decided to do.
Wilderness was a whole new thing too. I was sleeping out under the stars and larger than life trees just listening to the wind and howl of coyotes. Coyotes, Moose, Snakes, Chipmunks, Deer and Eagles were all common at camp – an Eagle’s nest lived just by the lake and the day we saw an Eagle carrying a snake home in it’s claws was only second best to the day an ice cream van came and handed out free ice cream.
The best part of camp was when you were alone, especially by the lakeside or on a warm day by the cabins. Catching a chipmunk or hearing peaceful waves crash on the shore made you glad to be alive – the times of calm and relaxation before the on coming storm of campers arrived. I tried to find a quiet spot by a tree as much as possible, or a quiet cabin worked just as well. That being said, hearing the bell and knowing twelve people were running back to tell me about their day made me very excited.
The whole of camp I felt alive and there was nowhere I would have rather spent my time. I had the chance to explore Boston and Salem and visit theme parks and beaches on my breaks and then I got to cover people in shaving foam and got paid for doing so. It most definitely wasn’t a job. Camp was a way of life, it was an attitude and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Trying to stop a kid from leaving the cabin and running across a wet field in socks is something that will stick with me for my entire life – mainly because the only helpful thing another counsellor did was to tell me that my socks were cool.
But yeah, summer camps in America are unreal places. I can see why kids want to go. It beats being stuck in your parent’s house for six weeks doing nothing but watching television and I would do anything to go back. I could write an awful lot more about it too. Camp was bubble. A bubble were you made friends, gossip spread quicker than chickenpox, you fancied every male counsellor regardless of the looks and you spent your breaks sleeping or persuading someone to come on the Jungle Jim with you whilst avoiding your own campers. I never wanted it to pop. I think the only thing that would’ve made it better is if Dick and Dom decided to jump out during Messy Wars and covered me in shaving foam.