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Happy Campers

Camp counselors are the mentors behind kids’ sunny summer memories

“Am I holding on to its butt or head?” asks Pretty Lake Vacation Camp camper Hannah P., 10, as she dangles a worm above her. The worm wriggles ferociously, trying to untangle itself from her fingers.

“Hmm…” says Mimi McLaurin, 21, a camp counselor at Pretty Lake Vacation Camp as she pulls worms apart and passes the pieces to the other five girls gathered around her.

“This feels so gross,” complains camper Shyrena L., 11. “Eeewww, it’s going through my fingers!” A chorus of groans and shrieks follows as the campers grimace, hopping up and down, completely disgusted as they struggle to pin worms to their fish hooks.

What can I say?” says McLaurin, undeterred by the groans and addressing all the girls at once. “We’re going to fish, ladies. Before we leave, we’re going to put worms on these hooks and throw them out into the water.”

And they do. In fact, by the end of the session, the six girls in McLaurin’s group don’t want to stop. There aren’t any more groans when they put the worms on the hooks either. “I think I need a really fat one,” says Michelle B., 10, as she approaches the bait box. “I want one that will just stay on this hook.”

Thirty miles east of Pretty Lake, Sherman Lake camp counselor Caroline Bissonnette, 20, dons a red cape and a backpack covered in camp “flair.” She and an active walkie-talkie connected to her hip greet us at the door.

“Let’s go see what some of the campers are up to,” she says. Quickly, she turns to us before leading us out the door. “I’m Captain Caring today,” she explains, pointing to her cape. “Please, don’t give away my secret identity,” she jokes.

She stays active all the way up the hill — stopping to redirect a camper, to talk to a fellow counselor about finishing schedules and to figure out a low-fuel golf cart situation. We come to the ga-ga rink, an enclosed hexagonal-shaped area in which seven or eight boys, ages 10 and 11, are playing ga-ga, an Israeli variant of dodgeball.

Bissonnette takes off her backpack, puts her cape on a spectating camper and jumps into the rink. “Hey, bud, I think they got you,” she says to a player. He steps out of the rink. “Thanks for your honesty.” Within seconds, she’s immersed in the game and the culture. Except for the fact that she’s taller than the campers and seemingly more willing to take herself out of the game when the ball touches her, there’s no difference in her level of activity or interest.

That’s the magic of camp counselors — they are able to bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood seamlessly because they’re at an age (18 to 23) that cradles the difference. Bissonnette and McLaurin follow a longstanding tradition of mentorship, and their campers adore them.

“Mimi is really nice, and she’s a lot of fun,” says Hannah P. “Parents and teachers always tell me what not to do all the time, but Mimi tells me to do stuff. Fun stuff.”

Counselors fill the role of nurturer, mentor and protector at camp. It’s easy to see why campers become so connected to their counselors and why they want to become counselors when they get older.

“Counselors are the backbone of camp,” says Lorrie Syverson, director of camping at Sherman Lake YMCA Camp. “Campers see their counselors as their best friends and their idols — they look up to this person who is an amazing role model and challenges them.”

It’s not just teaching outdoor skills or standing in loco parentis either, explains Syverson. Children tend to be more “insulated” in modern times, engaging frequently with their smartphones, computers, video games and other forms of technology and screen-based communication, she says, so face-to-face conversation is an art that’s taught at camp.

“Counselors teach campers how to make friends, which is an important life skill a lot of us tend to take for granted,” she says. “We tend to think these skills come naturally, but smiling when you’re getting to know someone and asking questions about another person are things that camp counselors do naturally, and they help the kids break down communication barriers.”

Anatomy of a counselor

With camp counselors having a role that’s so important to the development of campers, not to mention their protection, how do camps choose the perfect young adults to take on these responsibilities? Who’s got the right stuff?

“What I remember most about my camp counselors is their spirit,” says McLaurin, thinking back on her experience as a child at Camp Burt Shurly in Gregory, Mich. “They were really positive, had great attitudes and were engaging, entertaining and artistic.”

These are the same attributes McLaurin lists as her own strengths. A good counselor is one who strives to be as good a counselor as she or he had as a kid, it would seem. Even though not every counselor is a former camper, most are, and the camps take advantage of the pool of great kids they have by offering counselor-in-training programs.

The counselor-in-training programs at Pretty Lake and Sherman Lake act as a bridge between normal resident camp and camp counseling. They allow campers a way to be directly mentored and learn the skills needed to be a great counselor.

Taking part in one of the programs doesn’t necessarily mean counselors in training become counselors, or even that they’ll want to. If a young adult chooses to pursue the position, he or she must go through an application and interview process and then attend intensive training that teaches everything a counselor might need to know: how to participate in each camp event, life-saving techniques like CPR, emergency procedures, how to bond with campers and other counselors, how to facilitate groups of kids in engaging activities, camper behavior management and how to spot signs of neglect and abuse. The trainings are offered through each camp before sessions begin.

Counselors at both Pretty Lake and Sherman Lake have to be at least 18, and their ages range to the typical age of a college senior. Most counselors move on after graduation, when they begin to take all-year jobs.

When hiring counselors, the staffs at Pretty Lake and Sherman Lake look for a certain set of characteristics. For Syverson, who says Sherman Lake has developed specialized interview techniques to select perfect candidates, character is the most important aspect of a potential counselor — they have to embody the camp’s core values: caring, respect, honesty and responsibility.

“Counselors need to be engaging, enthusiastic and empathetic. They need to have compassion,” says Lisa Ruiter, Pretty Lake camp director. “All of our kids are here for a week to play and to just be kids. Sometimes they need help remembering how to just be kids and play. Our counselors learn how to break through emotional barriers and facilitate fun.”

Lifelong Connection

Read marketing and informational literature from any reputed camp, including Pretty Lake and Sherman Lake, and you’ll inevitably stumble across a phrase like this one, taken from Pretty Lake’s brochure: “You’ll have the time of your life and make friendships that last a lifetime.”

Life-changing experiences are arguably what camp is all about, and the staff and counselors are the driving force behind how influential camp is. This “change your life” claim might seem like marketing rhetoric, but it’s not. Even among the small number of adults we talked to from Sherman Lake and Pretty Lake, camp is a lifetime love.

After she moved to Michigan from New Jersey at age 5, Bissonnette attended Sherman Lake Camp every summer, along with her three siblings. Her family became a mainstay at Sherman Lake — everyone knew her, her siblings and her parents. Bissonnette’s mom died from breast cancer when she was 12. In the midst of her grief, and long after it, she found support, love and mentorship at Sherman Lake. Being a camp counselor is more than just working a summer job to Bissonnette, it’s returning home.

“Coming to camp has always been a very healing place for us — our happy place,” she says. “Everybody here knew us as a family, as a unit, and as we were going through that really tough time, we could always come back here and find support.”

McLaurin grew up in Detroit and attended Camp Burt Shurly as a child — a cost-free camp catering to children in the Detroit Public Schools. For McLaurin, working at Pretty Lake (another cost-free camp) is a dream job and she says she’s in it for the kids — she wants to pay forward the mentorship she received from her counselors.

Even though she was a child struck by homesickness, Syverson couldn’t wait to go to her 4-H camp every summer growing up. She still remembers her counselors’ faces. Later she worked in the kitchen and camp store of a Methodist camp in Minnesota for two summers. Both of her children have attended camp at Sherman Lake, and both have been camp counselors. Syverson is celebrating her 18th year at the camp.

Ruiter grew up about eight houses down from the Pretty Lake camp, and her parents were very involved with the camp as board members. Ruiter started volunteering at the camp at 14, and, as she got older, looked for any way she could become a part of Pretty Lake, a camp she believes in because of its mission to provide at-risk and disadvantaged youth a free camp, with everything supplied.

Ruiter started working at the camp when she was 16, in laundry, housekeeping and the farm program, before becoming camp director after returning home from college. When she thinks back on her time at Pretty Lake, and her time at a Wildlife Federation summer camp she attended in North Carolina for two summers, there are a lot of reasons camp and camp counseling are so important to her, not the least of which is to support the children who live in our communities and provide a truly free space for them to develop.

“I was a pretty wild kid,” Ruiter says. “I remember dressing up like a pirate every single day at camp, and I was the only kid dressing up like a pirate. All of the counselors embraced it. They loved it. Even if I didn’t fit in at school, which I didn’t, and even though I didn’t really feel like I had a place, at camp it didn’t matter. I could truly be an individual. Having adults like those counselors in my life definitely helped me become who I am now.”

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What Makes for Happy Campers?

Camp counselors who have spirit, spunk and training

When hiring counselors, the staffs at Pretty Lake and Sherman Lake look for a certain set of characteristics. For Syverson, who says Sherman Lake has developed specialized interview techniques to select perfect candidates, character is the most important aspect of a potential counselor — they have to embody the camp’s core values: caring, respect, honesty and responsibility.

Counselors at both Pretty Lake and Sherman Lake have to be at least 18, and their ages range to the typical age of a college senior. Most counselors move on after graduation, when they begin to take all-year jobs.

“Counselors need to be engaging, enthusiastic and empathetic. They need to have compassion,” says Lisa Ruiter, Pretty Lake camp director. “All of our kids are here for a week to play and to just be kids. Sometimes they need help remembering how to just be kids and play. Our counselors learn how to break through emotional barriers and facilitate fun.”