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VOL. 43 | NO. 11 | Friday, March 15, 2019

Counselors learn more at camp than treating bug bites

By Hollie Deese

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Confidence, communication, responsibility, resilience, participation and resourcefulness – these are some of the skills that teenagers learn as camp counselors.

What today’s teen counselors may not know is that these are abilities they can take to college, into the workplace and beyond.

Shanelle Lambert-Rauh, executive director of Whippoorwill Farm Day Camp in Fairview, says her camp has a two-week leadership program, Leadership Challenge, in which counselors in training learn soft skills like communication, leadership development, decision-making and teamwork. They also shadow counselors and work with the youngest campers.

“They’re learning skills that are different than educational skills or academics that they’re learning at school,” Lambert-Rauh explains. “They are gaining confidence because they’re learning new techniques. They’re working with their peers in a positive environment, where it doesn’t feel competitive like it can at school.

“They’re working on just those personal, interpersonal skills that people are losing because of technology.”

The American Camp Association does not have an ideal age to begin working at camp, but many camps employ high school- through college-aged counselors.

“I just had an email this week from a counselor that is not able to return because she’s just progressed in her schooling, but she said, ‘It helped me even in my speech and debate class in college because I learned how to talk to people’” Lambert-Rauh says. “She said, ‘I know that specifically came out of being at camp and being that role model in that type of setting.’ They’re learning that even at 15, 16.”

Polly Grammer of Peach Tree Farms, a horseback riding camp in Arrington, hires former campers as counselors when possible, about six every summer, but not because she knows them personally as much as she knows their capabilities and their commitment.

“Their riding experience is really good. If they don’t have good riding experience, I don’t hire them,” she says.

It’s been more than a decade since ACA conducted its first national study to identify what skills kids learn from camp experiences. ACA and its camp community used those findings to design programs, train staff and advocate to parents and funders the value in sending a child to camp.

But more information is needed. The ACA is in the middle of a large-scale, 5-year study on the impact that camp has on young professionals.

In 2016, ACA set out to explore the lasting impacts and the ways camp experiences prepare young people for college, their careers and their lives beyond camp. The study has three major components, one focused on youth, one on staff and one that explores leadership development through counselor-in-training programs and other staff recruitment strategies.

“They’re learning what it takes to work together in a team face-to-face, which is not something that they’re necessarily getting elsewhere, and learning that is important,” Lambert-Rauh says.

Whippoorwill is offering a new trailblazer camp this summer for rising ninth-graders over the course of three one-week sessions. A program that has nothing to do with helping younger campers, the trailblazer camp will allow teens to continue to engage in their own adventure, learning basic fire- and outdoor-shelter building and other survival skills.

“We have it designed that basically once they start with us as first-graders, they could in theory be with us all the way until they graduate college or at least graduate high school,” Lambert-Rauh adds.

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