Working at summer camp

Monday, 18 November 2013

Oh summer camp, where do I even begin? Friendship bracelets, campfires, song sessions, watching the sunset down at the lake, village initiations, Shabbat celebrations... I could go on. If you've ever been curious about working at a summer camp in the USA or you're considering applying, read on. My application process was a little different as I applied pretty late and it was all very rushed. I'd always fancied doing a Camp America type thing, but life always got in the way and I just never got round to it. Late last year I started really looking into it, and I applied through an agency called Camp Leaders in January. Before I knew it, I'd completed my application, had my interview and I was ready to be placed. This meant that camps could view my online profile and decide whether or not they would like to interview me for a position at their camp. Camp Leaders hold 2 recruitment fairs where summer camp directors from all over the states fly over to England and hold interviews right then and there - this means you can get hired on the spot. I was lucky enough to be hired at the Manchester job fair as an outdoor cooking specialist at Camp Chi in Wisconsin.

By the time June 6th rolled around, I think everyone was sick to death of hearing me harp on about how many days I had left to go and breathed a little sigh of relief when it was time for me to finally board that plane to Chicago. I was excited and nervous and scared to death all at once. I arrived at camp late at night where we were piled into the dining hall to get our bedding and say hello. We were all shattered, jet lagged and a little disorientated, so the first few hours were just a blur. We dragged our suitcases along the muddy paths to our new homes for the next 12 weeks, which was more than a shock to the system for me. The cabins were basic, which is to be expected for a summer camp. We were lucky enough to have electricity, running water and traditional wooden cabins which slept around 12-15 campers plus 3 staff members. I vividly remember my first night in the cabin. I stumbled into the room to find 4 other girls already unpacked, so I mumbled hello and chose my bed. Climbing into my bunk bed, I was scared to touch anything in case there were bugs, and I barely slept because I was so paranoid about spiders or other creepy crawlies. Even using the toilet was traumatic that first night - I learned very quickly to always wear flip flops to the bathroom.

Details aside, I got used to the cabins very quickly and before long I was hurtling myself into my bunk without worry. It wasn't a big deal to pull back your blanket before you went to sleep, find a bug hiding in there and ping it out before dozing straight off to the land of nod. Staff training week geared all of us up for what was to come, as best as it could. I can safely say that none of us could be prepared for the arrival of the kids. The day the buses arrived was crazy and hectic and stressful. Around 300 kids arrived in the space of hours - some of them were scared, but most of them were squealing bundles of excitement. I didn't have a huge amount of experience with children, so at first I was hesitant and actually a little scared - I didn't know how to interact with them or how to get them excited about our lessons. Eventually, I realised that you really can have great conversations with the kids, they were funny and intelligent and they often had me in tears of laughter and of course when summer ended, tears of sadness.

Days at camp are long. Don't go to camp expecting to have a laugh, get a tan and not really do much work. I rarely saw 6 hours of sleep and there was always something to do - lazy day is definitely not in the camp vocabulary. I worked in outdoor cooking which meant I was building and lighting fires and teaching kids to cook on them. In 30-odd degree heat, this was pretty demanding to say the least! But on my hour off or any free time I had, I could chill out by the pool, go kayaking or waterskiing, go horseriding or simply head back to my cabin for a little nap. When the day was over, the kids had extra activities at night that you could join in with, and if you weren't on duty then you were usually free to do what you wanted. Usually that involved laundry, a Walmart trip or just chilling in the staff lounge with a movie.

Camp Chi is a Jewish camp, so we did have a few little quirks compared to your average American camp. For example, after every meal we would sing the Birkat and there was a lot of dancing on the tables - we didn't believe in letting your food settle, to say the least. Every Friday night was the Shabbat services and subsequent song session, and Saturday was Shabbat so us specialists had the day off which was much needed by the end of a stressful week.

The best thing about camp is that you spend each day living and working with your best friends and contributing to the kids having a great summer. The worst thing is that it has to end. You know from day one that it's going to end, but nothing can actually prepare you for that. The day the kids left was absolutely horrible, we were all distraught but we tried our hardest to hold it together in front of the kids - safe to say when the buses finally left, I had cried more than a few tears.

I've made some true friends for life at camp, and I can now say that I have friends all over the world which is just amazing. If you're considering applying for camp 2014, then I would say 100% go for it. It was such a life changing experience for me and I learnt so much about myself, not to mention experiencing a whole different culture and gaining invaluable skills. Every single camp is different, but I haven't heard of one person who went to camp and didn't enjoy it. You might have moments of doubt where you think "what am I doing here?" but when a kid comes up to you and gives you a hug and a friendship bracelet and tells you how much they look up to you, you forget all of the negative things and realise just how lucky you are to be doing what you're doing.

I vividly remember during a sneak-out with the kids we headed down to the cove, lit a camp fire, ate s'mores and I ended up laying on the sand gazing at the stars. I was surrounded by huge trees, a glistening lake and hundreds of twinkling stars shining down on me. The girls were whispering in the background, telling each other all of their deepest secrets, giggling about boys and others were quiet like me. It's moments like those that make you sit back and take everything in, realise what you have and what others don't. It puts everything into perspective. After a horrible year last year, I think I was the happiest and most content I'd been in a long time when I was at camp, and I've taken that attitude back home with me. I'll always be grateful for the opportunity I had, and for taking it with both hands, and if you're considering it then you should too.


  1. This has made me want to do this soooo much! Did you go on your own not knowing anyone? I can still get really shy at times so would be scared I couldnt handle it :') x

  2. Fantastic blog Sarah! I went to camp for the first time in Summer 2013 and loved literally every minute of it. The camp I went to was Camp Watonka, it's a Scinece and Engineering camp in PA. You're right it's horrible having to say bye and lots of tears were shed at the final closing camp fire. I was invited to return for Summer 2014 and snapped up the opportunity straight away! #BringOnSummer2014 #CantWait #CampLeadersFTW

  3. aww this looks like the most fun ever! Love your blog :)

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