I wasn't sure if I wanted to discuss my camp experiences online because for the two American camps I have worked at, both had their good and bad points. I've decided to post this because not many counselors had written on here about the job, and when embarking on such an adventure it's nice to "know what you're letting yourself in for". I am going to leave the names of the camps anonymous, however, because they are both wonderful places, and I don't want to appear negative from the few bad things I have to say.
I will also not discuss the visa process/wages as that has been covered in my BUNAC review. So without further ado...
WHAT IS A CAMP COUNSELOR?
A camp counselor is many things. A nanny, a friend, a big sister, a teacher...I could go on. Duties are varied depending on what role you were hired for. Some camps, such as the first one I worked at (from now called Camp A), have general staff, who accompany campers from activities and assist the teaching staff there. Others, such as the second I worked at (Camp B), hire staff to teach specific activities. At both, and indeed most camps, staff are also responsible for the overnight care of campers, overseeing cabin chores, planning and carrying out evening activities, and assisting with mealtimes (not cooking, occasionally serving, usually heading a table, setting up and clearing away). I worked as a riding instructor so I was also required to care for the horses which involved getting up early and finishing late. Other staff such as lifeguards might have to work a little extra time during rec swims etc, than say a drama teacher.
WHAT TYPES OF CAMP ARE THERE?
I will only be talking about US camps. There are a few here, such as PGL, but I have no experience of them. In the US, there are YMCA camps, which are funded to allow children from poorer families to attend. There are also Girl Scout camps, which are pretty self-explanatory, and everything else is a private camp. Either type could be day camp or sleepaway. Most international staff will get placed at a sleepaway camp. Private camps can be specialist, such as riding camp, weight loss camp, Jewish-only, etc, or general. They are also co-ed (girls and boys) or single sex. So as you can see there is plenty of choice to find the perfect camp!
WHAT IS A TYPICAL DAY LIKE?
While there are schedules, there is no typical day at camp. Bad weather or special occasions such as the Fourth of July call for the normal routine to be dropped, and in the case of bad weather you are often required to think of an activity at the last minute. I only have experience of two camps, but whilst applying and choosing a camp I received information from a lot, all of which contained a daily schedule. Most include three meals plus a nighttime snack, a short staff meeting, time for campers to do chores, rest hour and a rec swim.
DO I NEED TO BE QUALIFIED?
The majority of camps prefer childcare experience, but do not absolutely, definitively require it. A good attitude and enthusiasm is far more important. Some camps also like their staff to have first aid training, but if they require it they will almost certainly provide training and testing. This is the case with lifeguarding also, waterfront staff usually arrive a week early to complete a course. Most camps want their staff to be over 18/19 (varies), or have finished one year of college if they are towards the lower end of the age limit. Obviously a clean police record is essential!
WHAT ARE THE BEST THINGS ABOUT A CAMP JOB?
Number one is the friends! You will make some of the best friends of your life at camp, guaranteed. I went to Camp A in 2004 and I still talk to some of them constantly, my unit were like a family. Camp B was smaller so I was able to get to know the entire staff, and again I am in touch with so many of them all the time.
Of course, the campers are fun! I am like a proud parent, I still look at the pictures online of my girls from two years ago (in fact, I check somewhat obsessively in the summertime!) and write to them when they return. They will teach you so much and you will gain a new-found appreciation for your own parents.
Camp will let you try out things you would never normally get to try...windsurfing, kayaking, sailing, climbing, hiking, visiting some beautiful places...I have done so many things I wouldn't have got to, or would have paid a lot to do, as a "normal tourist".
You will get first aid training, certification in teaching certain sports, etc, which you would have to pay a lot for elsewhere.
AND THE WORST?
Mosquito bites, sunburn, long hours, heat, sleeping in a room of 10 other people, other staff...
When I worked at Camp A, I started off working half a day with the horses and half as a general counselor. It was a riding camp and therefore had a lot of staff in the barn, and got very, very bitchy. I soon got fed up and decided to switch to all general, which was SO much fun and I basically got to be a camper all summer! Camp B had zero cliques, so size is important. Both camps I worked at were girls only, but I've heard at co-ed camps it can get quite bitchy when girls start fighting over male staff. You would think a girls-only staff would be horribly bitchy, but believe me remove the guys (and horses) and it's not! Besides, while I have heard of people striking up long-lasting camp romances, who wants to make the effort to look good when you smell like horse crap, are covered with bug bites and haven't had a shower in three days?!
At both camps it also seemed somewhat unfair how much more work riding staff did than other staff, and at Camp B in particular, being one of only three riding staff, I was expected to be in two places at once by staff who didn't realise how much work I had to do elsewhere so the horses wouldn't starve, etc!
It's not a job you do for the money, but for the experience. When you get your paycheck, remember this. Repeat it to yourself over and over, then go do something fun!
HOW DO I FIND A CAMP JOB?
Both times I chose a camp online that I liked the look at, contacted them until I had a contract, then went with this to BUNAC who took it from there. If you don't have a specific camp you want to go to, companies like BUNAC, CCUSA, etc, will talk to you about your skills and preferences and place you accordingly.
I JUST GOT A CAMP JOB, HAVE YOU ANY TIPS?
Most camps will send you an information pack before you arrive, generally requiring you to come with a couple of ice-breakers prepared for staff training, and have a couple of rainy day activities planned. These will most likely be reviewed in pre-camp training, usually a week of games, activities, and, I found, a lot of fun. So don't worry if you feel clueless when you arrive, that's what pre-camp's for!
You will also get a packing list, but this is often geared towards campers or staff who are travelling by car and able to bring more. International staff are usually provided with towels and bedding. You will almost certainly have time to pick up some things you forgot during pre-camp. Some things I found indespensible were: a waterproof watch, water shoes (they are hard to find and expensive here, but a trip to Walmart once you're there will get you some for around $5), a torch (flashlight) is a MUST, alarm clock, sunscreen, a good water bottle, and a hat. Also bring addresses and stationary and make everyone at home promise to write, because mail is a highlight of the day at camp!
Mostly try to remember when you're overworked and underpaid, and absolutely exhausted, that you are going to miss everyone like crazy once you're home, so make the most of it!
For me, camp is an experience I will always remember, and if I didn't have a "grown up's job" I would jump at the chance to do again. I am definitely jealous when summer rolls around and some of my friends are back, with MY kids, and MY ponies, having all kinds of fun while I'm stuck in an office! There were numerous times during both summers I thought to myself "I get paid to do this?!" If you have a lot of energy and patience (which I don't always, and sometimes struggled), it is a unique experience you'll never forget.
Each summer, my daughter (now 14) goes to summer camp (indeed, she was a 'CIT' - a Counsellor in Training, so she was helping to teach the younger kids) - that traditional American dumping ground for children during the long summer holidays. But she's not at any old camp. She's at an equestrian summer camp in Pennsylvania. Not bad, considering we live in England.
OK, OK, the commute only had to be done once - my daughter flies out to the US each July as an unaccompanied minor; we join her in the States for the last two weeks of each August.
She's been going since she was seven or eight. Every year, they have an end-of-camp horse (well...what else?) show. Boy, did I notice a few things. The camp is great - brilliant instructors, placid horses and ponies, clean and well kept premises. But what were some of the campers and parents thinking???
Yes, my daughter has been riding a few years now and therefore has accumulated some of the kit - obviously, as a parent, you're don't want to fork out possibly hundreds of pounds on the equipment for a hobby if you don't know what your child will think of it. But some is essential.
So herewith, what to know about equestrian centres - not just camps, but riding in general.
Before Your Child Goes
Whether it's a two week camp, or a nearby stable, check out a few things before you go.
*** DESIRE *** Does your child really WANT to ride, or do YOU want him or her to ride? There's not a lot of point if your child is scared of horses/animals/heights. If you're considering equestrian camp, make sure your child is emotionally ready for the challenge. Remember, it is a sport, and sometimes a physically demanding one. Take the cue from your kid.
*** STAFF *** Are the staff members certified? Can they not just ride, but also teach (just because you can do something, doesn't mean you can teach it). Go to the stables and watch a lesson in action. A lesson that your child isn't participating in. Does the teacher have control of both the children and the animals? One stable my daughter attended in England had a teacher who was obviously a good horse-person, but was a poor teacher. She couldn't control the lesson at all. That was no fun for anyone there. The children were frustrated, the animals bored, and I was at wits end listening to all the whinging.
*** ANIMALS *** Are the horses and ponies suitable for the age and skill level of your child? The school/camp should NOT expect your child to school the horse or pony. I've seen that happen, too. Size isn't as important as you might think it would be (that is the size of the animal, not the size of the child). Many larger ponies and small horses actually can make a better ride for a new rider, as they usually have a smoother gait. Often too, a small horse may be less tempermental than a pony (although, of course, not always). What is important is the temperament. You should not see a new rider on a very fiesty horse - again, that's not fair on either the horse or the rider, and will end in tears.
*** EQUIPMENT *** Do you have to provide a helmet for your child? If it's going to be your child's first riding experience, chances are, you are not going to want to part with a fair wad of cash for a hat that may end up moldering in a closet. Will the stables lend you one? If so, how much will it cost you? REMEMBER - anyone on a horse or pony MUST wear a helmet AT ALL TIMES. There are no exceptions. If the stable you are viewing has children or adults on horses or ponies without helmets, take your child elsewhere.
*** THE LEGAL STUFF *** Is the stable/camp sufficiently insured? At even the best stables or camps, accidents happen - remember, these are large and unpredictable animals. Have the staff members received adequate first aid training? Is there a doctor on call, or a hospital near by which knows about the stables? Touch wood, my daughter has never had an accident (she's only fallen off a couple of times ever), but with the best will in the world, they do happen. Make sure the camp or stables are prepared for it.
OK - we like the camp - what does my child need?
Some of the stuff your child should bring would hold true at any camp. If the camp has a pool, your child will need a swimming costume (duh!). If there are other sports activities, your child will need sneakers. Those kind of things. However, there are certain specialised equipment your child should have. Remember, not all items have to be bought especially for the camp - brown hiking boots can double as riding shoes if you are unwilling to invest in the real thing. Nevertheless, there are certain things you should have and keep in mind.
*** TROUSERS *** Contrary to popular belief, jeans are NOT the best trousers to wear when riding, especially when riding English. The seams on the inside of the legs will chafe, and therefore your child will be in some pain after two weeks (or whatever) of constant riding. Jodphers are, of course, ideal. As well as the fact they don't have the large seams on the inside leg, they are also padded at the tender areas of the butt and the insides of the calves. Barring that, any pair of trousers that are sturdy enough to take a beating but have small or no seams at the points of contact with the animal will do. Alternatively, any pair of trousers will work if you put chaps (leather outer trousers that buckle onto the legs). Shorts are a definite no-no unless your child possesses chaps.
*** SHOES *** Sneakers are out. Forget it. Don't even think about it. Sneakers have no heel (the heel helps keep the foot in the correct place in the stirrup), and have soles that are too 'sticky' to work well. They can be downright dangerous. Having said that, you don't need to mortgage your home for riding boots. Either get a pair second hand (that's what I did) or use a shoe or boot with a low heel, such as deck shoes or hiking boots. Recently, I saw two girls with heels that would floor a supermodel. That's taking the requirement for a heel to extremes. Again, those shoes were potential dangerous. Use your common sense, and/or ask at the stables for suggestions.
*** BACK PROTECTOR *** These are a lot more common in England than they seem to be in the US. They look like bullet proof vests, and for some reason, often seem to be blue. These are a bit of an optional extra, but recommended especially for certain groups of riders: those with disabilities such as dyspraxia or CP that may make them more prone to falling; those learning to jump or improving their jumping; those who need the extra confidence these can bring. My daughter used to wear hers in England all the time, and until this year, wore hers at camp (remember, in the US) when she jumped. Otherwise she doesn't at camp, largely because it was simply too hot (east coast USA summers, don't you know).
*** SENSIBLE OTHER CLOTHING AND VARIOUS MISCELLENIA *** OK - this seems obvious, but sometimes it's worth stating the obvious. Thick socks are good if the boots are a tad on the big side. The T-shirt shouldn't be so long that your child is sitting on it when in the saddle. If it's summer, a t-shirt is better than a sleeveless shirt, especially if your child is very fair skinned. Don't forget the suncream! If you're somewhere like the East Coast of the US, bug spray wouldn't be amiss. It's dusty and dirty - white shorts or trousers - even for the non-riding activities - is a bad idea (I found this one out the hard way). Make sure lunch, if you've packed it, is securely and dust-proof(ly) sealed. Pack loads of water and drinks if it's going to be hot. All that kind of common sense stuff.
Once you've made the decision to send your child to riding lessons or equestrian camp, relax. I know, I've talked a bit about the dangers. But they're not a given - as I said earlier, my daughter has now ridden for several years and the worst that has happened was bruising. Light bruising. My brother, on the other hand, badly broke his leg playing soccer. Accidents happen with any physical activity. The point is, if you've done your homework, and your satisfied that all reasonable precautions have been taken, your child will probably love it. The main danger will be that little voice crying "Mummy, when can I have a pony?"
Normal programming may resume now (unless you've bought the pony, in which case you probably don't have a computer anymore. Or a TV. Or a house...)
Here in the UK, I've noticed more and more 'activity weeks' (which would typically be called 'day-camp' in the States). These are often based at schools, although not always, and have often, I think, been created to cater for the children of working parents (although if THAT'S true, why do they nearly always run from around 9.30 to 3.00 - how many bosses of full-time employees would allow their employees to work those hours?!).
Day camp (and sleep-away, for that matter) is an established concept in the States, and there are camps that are general outdoor/activity camps (i.e. Scout camps, 4H camps), and there are camps for specific interests (my daughter's equestrian camp, I went to computer camp - OK, I'm sad).
Just thought you should know!
Back to school tomorrow. For most people between the ages of 5 and 18, these are four words which cause panic attacks, a variety of fake illnesses, (including everything from the classic stomach aches and flu symptoms to rare tropical diseases) and endless hours of worrying trying to think up the right excuse for that grumpy old sod of a maths teacher whose coursework did not get done, despite the fact that there were 6 whole weeks to do it. I mean, 'Sorry Sir, the dog ate it' or 'I didn't have time' just won't work this time. (Let's face it, do those excuses ever work??) When the time comes to set the Wallace and Gromit alarm clock (which by the way, seemed like a good idea at the time!) for 7:00am, 99.999% of school students are crying out 'NOOOOO!!!!!'. The other 0.001% are all sorted for the next day and are relieved to be returning to normality. I am ashamed to admit that a large part of me was in this second group on the evening of September 4th. I had an excuse though unlike the rest of this sad minority of people. I had spent the entire summer working in a play scheme with kids running round my ankles for about 7 hours a day, 3 days a week. It seemed like such a good way to earn money during the school holidays. It had sounded so easy and so fun! Let me tell you this, working with kids is not an easy way to earn money. On my first day, once I had tackled the challenge of actually finding the place, I was introduced to the other staff and told where everything was. I then had 2 booklets of rules and guidelines thrusted into my hands and was told to read through them at home as we had only half an hour to set up the hall ready for the children. I had no idea what to set up so I got the stacks of chairs out of the storeroom with Katie, who was also there for the first time that day, then Joanne, who is the most cheery person at 8:30am I have ever met, asked me to mix up th
e paints. As she handed me tins, pots and a jug and pointed me in the direction of the kitchen I thought, 'Mix up the paints?? What???'. After a hectic half hour of setting up, I felt ready for the children. Or so I thought... The doors opened and there was this huge mass of really loud little people between the ages of 6 and 12 streaming through them. Katie and I looked at each other and, not for the first time that morning, we were both thinking, 'What have I let myself in for??' By lunchtime when the morning group were leaving, we were completely shattered and the thought of having to do all of that again with the afternoon group - AGH! The first day was really hard work but once I had gotten to know the children a bit, things did get a little easier (I will never say it was easy!). On Fridays, the play scheme went on trips to different places. During the summer I got to go to 2 places with them, the Sealife Centre and to see the lifeboats in a local harbour. For the trips, each play worker had one small group of about 5 children to look after for the day. As with nearly everything I had to do at the play scheme, this sounds a heck of a lot easier than it actually was! For instance, on the trip to the sea life centre, I had a little lad called Cameron in my group and his identical twin Luke was in the group behind us. I never knew which twin was at my feet! The problems weren't with the children on the trip but with the experienced staff who had already been on the trips in previous years as Katie and I found out at the Lifeboat centre. As we walked in the centre, one of the lifeboat crew showing us round turned and said, 'I need 2 adults to do a presentation for the children'. Susan, the play leader, announced that Katie and I would be happy to oblige then she burst out laughing. It was at this point that Katie and I started to feel a little suspicious as to w
hat this 'presentation' actually was. Well we soon found out. During the video that the kids were watching, we were taken into the changing rooms and told that one of us had to put on a wet suit and the other had to wear a dry suit. We just stood there, looking at each other in horror! Well, we had to do it so we put them on and walked back into the room to show everyone. As we walked back into the room all I could hear were little whispers of 'Is that Clare and Katie?' and laughter. The other staff were laughing the hardest and all I could think was 'I am sooooo glad Susan didn?t bring that camera!'. Although I was sitting at about 9:00pm on September 4th thinking 'YES!!! Back to normality!', I can't wait until next summer when I get to do it all again. Although it was the most exhausting summer I have ever had, it really opens your eyes up when a 6 year old girl comes up to you and tells you all about her sister who died and is now her guardian angel...
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I worked on a summer camp in the Brecon Beacons for 5 months this year, so I thought I would put down my experiences. Lots of young people go to work on summer camps, either here or abroad. I'm warning you-it's not as good as it sounds. I think the companies take advantage of young people who want to experience something new, or "escape from the rat race". Low pay, long hours and hard work. It comes with the job. It's not all bad though. *** My Job *** I was employed as a kitchen assistant. Not very exciting, but I didn't have experience with children to be a group leader. The pay was £60 a week, including food and accomodation (which I will discuss later!) It was supposed to be 42 hours a week, including 1 night duty and 1 ents (I'll explain later) but very often exceeded 60 hours, which is a joke. The job consisted of setting up the tables, helping prepare the meals, serving the meals and cleaning up. It was immensely soul destroying and at times I felt that the other staff looked down on the kitchen workers, which really annoyed me. The training wasn't very good, although we had to do a food hygeine test (about 3 months after I had started). We had to wear a gross uniform which was far too hot in the summer. I would not recommend this job to anyone, but I suppose if you only want a short term thing it wouldn't be too bad. It also depends on who is working with you. I found that many people started working in the kitchen and subsequently left becase of the poor conditions. I often had to do disgusting jobs such as cleaning the deep fat fryers. That involves sticking your arm into dirty oil that goes up to your shoulder. Uuuuurrr, it makes me feel sick remembering it. The kitchen was seriously understaffed and no-one seemed to care. One time I was sick in the middle of a shift and I told the chef and he just sent me back into the kitchen. If someone has been sick they ar
e not supposed to enter a kitchen for at least 24 hours. *** Living Conditions *** As mentioned before, my pay included food and accommodation. The accommodation was a small tent with a metal framed bed and a thin foam mattress. Hardly sufficient in April. I don't need to tell you that it was freezing. The staff tents were all together, in an unlit area of the camp, about half a mile from the toilet block. Now, living in a tent in summer may not be too bad, but in spring it is terrible. It gets dark so early so unless you want to be in the staff room you have to use torches. You also had to get dressed every time you needed the loo in the night. The toilet block was a small portacabin with 1 toilet and 2 showers for 30 female staff. It was always flooded and smelly. Once it was the summer holidays though, we were allowed to use the teachers showers. Okay, onto the food. I wouldn't say I'm a fussy eater, but I don't eat red meat and I like to have some nutrition in my meals. Now, working in the kitchen I saw where all the food came from and how it was cooked and it was not very appetising. Deep fried everything, from fish fingers to spring rolls. Rarely any vegetables. The one good thing about working in the kitchen was that we were allowed as much fruit as we wanted. I suppose the food is ok for the kids who come on the holidays as it's only for a week and they want junk (chips every day), but for the staff who have to live there it was not up to scratch. *** The camp itself **** The camp would be a great place to go as a kid. All the kids and teachers (in school terms) stay in tents for 4 people. Unlike staff tents, the kids tents have solid concrete floors and they close properly. There are loads of activities they can do there, on land activities such as motorsports, abseiling, climbing, zip wire and archery. There was another centre nearby which
did watersports on a huge lake. All the groups seemed to enjoy themselves, it's just different from the staff perspective. There was a small village nearby, with a shop and 3 pubs. On your day off (1 a week) you could go to Brecon on the bus, where there are shops and a cinema. I had my bike with me and cycled to Hay-on-Wye, the village of books, which was really pretty. I also went to Hereford on one of my days off. Considering that some summer camps are in totally remote areas, the camp I was at was in a good location. There were 60 staff working there-group leaders, instructors, kitchen workers, cleaners and others. You have to be 18 to work on most summer camps, but to be honest I don't think they are too fussy about who works there. Not many people are willing to give up their life at home to go and live somewhere remote with people they don't know. *** Good points *** It wasn't all terrible. There was the opportunity on the camp to take part in the activities. This was usually to help a new instructor with their training, so you were a guinea pig. I enjoyed this, and managed to do abseiling, zip wire, trapeze and canoeing. The canoeing on the lake was great. Due to the staff all being young, there was a good atmosphere, although I found some people to be quite cliquey. There were lots of parties and people went to the pub together. There were also quite a lot of trips organised, including one to the rugby in Cardiff, shopping trips and one to Brecon Jazz. The Brecon Jazz festival was a great night, there were live bands in the street and loads of stalls and the streets were packed. I really got to love the area, as a city girl, it was amazing to wake up at dawn to bird song, and to sleep at night to complete silence (other than drunken staff stumbling to bed). It was a beautiful area, the camp was surrounded by hills, which unfortunately were closed due to foot and mouth.
*** Moving Camp *** After 3 months living in a tent and working ridiculous hours, I was fed up and ready to hand in my notice. The manager offered me a position at a different centre a few miles away. My new job was basically to cover all the staff's days off. So I did a mixture of: chef, group leader, reception work and domestic assitant. I really enjoyed doing the "groupie" work and if I went back to PGL I would be a group leader and NOT a catering assistant. I hope I haven't totally put off anyone who is thinking about going to work on a summer camp. Remember, they are all different, you have to find one that suits you. I think the most important factor as to whether you will enjoy the experience is the job you are doing. I hated the job, therefore I was tired and didn't enjoy myself so much. I would be really interested to see comments from anyone elses experiences of this kind of work. *** Working for PGL *** PGL have activity centres located in England, Wales, Scotland, France, Spain and some ski-ing centres. They require seasonal staff including group leaders, activity instructors, drivers, domestic assistants and catering assistants. To apply, to to their website (address below) and you can download an application form. If you are interested in wokring on a summer camp, try these sites: www.pgl.co.uk www.campamerica.com www.bunac.com With all of the summer camps, the menial, boring jobs like cooking and cleaning have slightly higher rates of pay than the more interesting jobs.