Staffing at Wekeela
This month, our blog will focus primarily on staffing at Wekeela – the counselors and role models who take care of our campers. The job of being a camp counselor is an intense one and integral to the camp experience. Camp staff are the primary caretakers of our campers during the summer, creating meaningful bonds and relationships that can, and will, last a lifetime, if they are properly engaged and competent. There are many elements that go into successful camp staff, including (in no particular order) recruitment, interviewing, preparation, training, execution, and retention.
I’d like to share one of the first passages of our staff training manual, The Staff Resource Book, that we share with our camp staff on the first day of staff training: “Camp life provides the opportunity for a kind of intensity in relationships which rarely exist in our world. More important than any other single aspect of counseling is staff responsibility as a role model. Your campers will believe what you do and say to be worthy of emulation. Think back to those intimate conversations that your own role models encouraged when you were a child. Camp education many times takes place at the end of the day. It’s at those moments when campers listen carefully to your reactions as to whether you truly believe in what you, and they, did during the day. It’s at that moment when a camper shares something of themselves and when you will make your greatest impact in your work as a counselor.”
Being a camp counselor begins with being a role model. As the Assistant Director of Camp Wekeela, my full time responsibility every day is the recruitment and hiring of staff, new and returners. My second question to every staff member is, “What makes you a good role model for children?” For some applicants, this is a challenging question. Many staff I interview, but eventually don’t hire, think about a summer camp job as an experience to be in the sunshine all day or travel the United States after seven weeks of working. Wekeela sees this job differently. We explain to staff that they are held to a higher standard, and there is a fantastic opportunity to be a great role model. What counselors do at camp will make the difference between good and bad experiences for our campers. Ultimately, the job of any camp is to make sure that the community we build each summer creates lifelong memories, friendships, and experiences. There is no doubt in my mind that these same ideals also occur for staff.
As someone who was a camper for eleven summers and a counselor for seven years before starting to work full time for Wekeela, I write this with a unique perspective. I am also the oldest brother of three boys and the oldest cousin. However, I had several counselors, who as a camper, I viewed as older brothers. I could go to them for advice, both during the summer and in the off-season. I was lucky that my generation grew up with cell phones and social media, because I could connect with my counselors throughout the year. My counselors were also a diverse group of individuals with different backgrounds and skill sets, which allowed me to have appreciation for their cultures. I will be forever grateful that as young as ten years old, I had staff from countries like South Africa, England, Scotland, Israel, France, Italy, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Spain, Argentina and of course the U.S.A.. That diversity allowed me to have a better worldview. This geographic and cultural diversity of Wekeela camp staff is something that most kids likely do not get in schools or their hometowns. Although my counselors were from different countries, they were only a few years older than I was, and by the time I was a teenager, the age gap didn’t feel so big. I was very lucky to have staff over my eleven years as a camper that were able to return for several summers, getting to know me, and my group of friends, extremely well.
I was fortunate enough to also experience this as a counselor. I never really appreciated the level of connection and responsibility that comes with being a camp counselor as a child; I always saw my counselors as older brothers who were there to guide us throughout the summer. As a Junior Counselor, I learned from the experienced staff in my bunk and department. I thought I had the job down pat, that my experience as a camper and having gone through staff training, I’d be just fine relying on my own experience. However, I will never forget the fear I felt the first night when the doors to our cabin flew open and our brand new camper from Mexico was wailing with homesickness. At that moment, I completely froze, having no idea what to do or how to handle it. We discussed how to deal with homesickness several times during our staff training, and I fully expected I knew the strategies to handle and help the campers if this occurred. However, the reality of a crying child, one who also didn’t speak fluent English, really intimidated me. Luckily, I had four co-counselors that were able to calm the camper, and I watched the methods they used to help him. This early lesson, that the other staff are there to help you as well, was eye opening for me. I was lucky enough to be a counselor for six more summers to the same group of campers, and have had the privilege to see many of my campers now go on to be staff and leaders at camp themselves. Being a counselor was, without a doubt, the best job I ever had. The friendships and bonds I created with my campers and co-counselors were so meaningful to me. I still speak to many of my former campers daily and truly see them as some of my closest friends in the world.
My point of this story is to express that, ready or not, the role of a counselor during the summer will transform staff, making them more centered than they may have believed possible, and transporting them to a new plane of connectedness with youthful experience they may have only recently left behind. How staff establish and maintain relationships with their campers will determine their success. That success will be measured by each staff’s capacity to be a good leader, role model, and mentor for our youth.
This all starts with an important point and the guiding principle of our staff, which is leadership by example or L.B.E.. Each staff member is constantly striving to set a good example, knowing that kids emulate adult behavior, be it good or bad. Dedicated staff members want to be positive role models, and they want children to learn from them. Staff use proper manners, clean language, and good sportsmanship. They never ask a camper to do something that they themselves would not be willing to do.
So let’s talk about some important differences between Wekeela and other camps on the point of staffing:
- At Wekeela over 50% of our staff are former campers: Campers that return each year to become staff have a unique experience to give back to our campers. When I interview former campers, without fail, the answer to “Why do you want to be a counselor?” is usually something along the lines of “I want to give campers the experience my counselor gave to me.” Having this unique understanding of the Wekeela experience helps our campers feel better connected. These staff have been the camper who was homesick, bullied at home, dealing with divorce while at camp, etc. They come from similar backgrounds and experiences to our campers and can be a guiding rock for the camp experience. Most camps have a former camper rate of about 10%.
- About 80% return rate each summer for staff: Additionally, most summers staff returning to Wekeela is very high, meaning that our campers have continuity in their experiences, and new campers will have a chance to connect easier because the majority of the staff is experienced. We believe that this is so high because the staff and campers build such strong bonds during their camp experience (more on this below).
- 11 days of intensive staff training: Our staff training is very specific and intense. Staff training allows our staff, new and returners, to focus on teamwork, communication, camaraderie, lesson planning, and setting-up camp, while also working through important sessions like homesickness, bullying, stress/anxiety, and so much more. The staff training experience helps staff to prepare and understand the expectations of leading by example and the specific responsibilities of caring for other people’s children.
- Diversity: As mentioned, our geographic & culturally diverse staff from different U.S. states and countries leads to a cultural experience that enriches our campers’ experience. This group of diverse staff allow our campers experiences that they would not have otherwise. In 2023, we will have staff from the following countries outside of the United States: Mexico, Panama, Singapore, England, Scotland, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Philippines, Serbia, Hungary, Colombia, and Austria.
- Staff moving up with their campers: This means that when our staff do return, they will age up with their campers. This allows our campers not only to have continuity in their experience year to year, but also allows them to have staff who know them best. This is a huge pillar of our culture and philosophy. As someone who experienced this on both sides as a camper and a counselor, it is without a doubt, one of the most significant parts of the Wekeela experience.
We take a lot of pride in our staff and are excited about our staffing for summer 2023. Every summer will come with different personalities, perspectives, and role models for our campers. Camp counselors have an intense responsibility to work with campers from diverse backgrounds while trying to ensure the summertime balance of having fun, making friends, dealing with any external camp pressures/troubles, and constantly staying engaged. The job can be exhausting, stressful, and overwhelming while also being incredibly rewarding, silly, filled with connections, and also allow staff to reconnect with youthful energy that can carry them through the rest of their lives.