A Publication of WTVP

This Peoria resident detail her life's moments – the good and the bad – each month through humor and personal experiences.

Summer is winding down, and now that the kids are safely home from resident camp, I can tell you what really goes on there. I didn’t say that to alarm anyone, but I did work as a camp counselor as a college student, and many years later I was the director of a resident camp. What I mean is that while the children are having the time of their lives at camp, so are the adults that work there. The American Camping Association reports that each year more than 11 million children and adults attend camp, and camps employ more than 1.2 million adults. The ACA says that “Quality camping experiences help children develop the healthy emotional and social skills necessary to grow into strong, considerate, competent adults.” Working at a camp gives a young person invaluable life and workforce skills such as leadership, decision-making, planning, organizing, communication interpersonal skills and teamwork. Those of you who have experienced resident camp or have worked as a camp counselor know what I am talking about—it is one of those “priceless” things—and that sort of describes the pay as well.

The culture at resident camp is one of almost total isolation from the outside world. In order to preserve their privacy, staff members use camp names. The name is unique to each one, such as the horse riding instructor called H.L. (Horse Lady), Orbit (she was really “out there”), Phantom (I named her because she just didn’t seem to be where she should be most of the time) and Schnapps (she chose it, and I didn’t want to know more). My favorite nurse’s name was Aida Band-Aida, and we had a Mouse in the kitchen. Basic was named for her constant use of the word “basically” in conversation. She was the waterfront director and quite the colorful character. It was fun to watch her work with the kids, as she had a great sense of humor and could take any child who was deathly afraid of water and teach them to swim, but I never saw her swim—I had a lot of confidence in my staff.

Recruiting was an interesting challenge. I attended summer camp job fairs at the state universities and would talk to many students, keeping notes to remember who they were. Often, when they arrived at camp I was surprised—usually in a good way. No one takes this type of job for the money, and some would do it for nothing. I remember the excitement of two friends that I hired who had no idea that people actually got paid to work at camp. It was amazing and frightening at the same time to watch young women accept the responsibility to make decisions and judgment calls in an almost 24/7 work environment.

The director has administrative staff to help keep her sanity. Mine were exceptional, very organized and best of all, made me look good. Finding ways to cut costs was always a challenge. For example, signs were put up in the latrines requesting only three sheets of toilet paper be used at a time—we called it the “A Little Dab Will Do You” campaign. Another cost-saving effort was to use Rent-A-Wreck for the summer rather than the usual car rental. My business manager was not amused to have to nurse this monstrous vehicle, but by the end of the summer she was really into cruising with it.

Staff meetings were always interesting. Most problems could be easily corrected, and fortunately, very few were similar to when a flashlight is dropped in the latrine—a sticky situation that no one wants to handle. The most memorable example of dysfunctional listening was when I told the counselors for the 100th time to stay out of the kitchen walk-in cooler, as only the kitchen staff could go in there. Then, immediately following the meeting, I caught one of the counselors walking out of the cooler, and an explosion occurred, with me saying (with some colorful adjectives) that talking to her was like talking to a brick wall. To this day, every time I see her she repeats word-for-word what I said—all in jest, of course.

The campers have the most fun and are a constant source of entertainment to each other and to us. One little girl couldn’t remember the name of one of the staff at the pool who had short blond hair, so she called him her “little bald man.” We gave the campers postcards to make sure they wrote home. For the first timers, we checked to see if “homesick” was in the message, and if it was, we held the card a day to make sure it didn’t arrive home before the camper. They would also write about things they did a little bit out of context, like the one telling her folks that she got to go horseback riding on a wild horse called Thumper—when in reality, Thumper was about a month from the glue factory. One camper wrote home that they were all sitting around the campfire circle and an Indian came and took them away—not enough room on the postcard to explain that it was the opening ceremony of the camp—we held that one, too.

It is not easy to let your child go to resident camp. I was fortunate not to have to experience that fear as my children stayed at camp with me. My daughter, L.B., loved to enter into the camp experience. I remember feeling some anxiety when her group was walking by the camp office and the unit leader said they were going to the lake for canoe lessons with Basic—the one I never saw swim. I just ask too many questions, but at least she never got homesick. TPW