Everything I learned whilst working at an American summer camp

It became very obvious to me as the final days of summer set in that, once I left, nobody at home would really get what had happened to me. For eight weeks I lived and breathed everything summer camp from the skits and the songbook to the constant cheering and campfires. What was it like? Well, maybe you had to be there.

It was amazing, a summer to remember, but don’t let the rose-tinted glasses fool you, it was a struggle at times. Three weeks into camp I was ready to pack it all in and fly straight home, and it took a lot to power through and find my happiness there. And then, before I knew it, it was the final days of camp, and I was packing my bags talking about how much I wanted to come back.

Those two months taught me a lot, but the first thing I learnt was to take myself a lot less seriously. Camp life ran on chanting and singing, the cheesier the better, and at first this just didn’t compute. I vividly recall the first day, sat whilst everyone around me was doing the Announcement Cheer and the Skit Cheer, wondering if I had accidentally joined a cult.

There was the British in me and then there was the ‘me’ in me both of whom were hugely prone to embarrassment. When it was time to jump on our benches the self-conscious side of me wanted to do so as subtly as possible, or not at all. And yet, by week eight, I couldn’t wait to jump up for every village cheer or dance around to Build Me Up Buttercup.

What changed? Well, the vanity melted away. In reality, nobody really cares if you look like an idiot. And, if they do, it really didn’t matter. Crouching in a corner avoiding participating achieves nothing except missing out. Ultimately, camp taught me that the fun starts when you start taking yourself less seriously.

But, getting to this realisation isn’t a smooth process. I was over 3000 miles from home in a totally new environment trying to navigate a job I’d never done before. Being the Camp Photographer involved a lot of logistics and patience as we tried to take the photos that camp wanted, on time and in the right quantity. It seems an easy gig, and it was once the team had found their feet, but the learning curve of working in such a unique environment was a tough one to hack.

And then there was the fact that this was my first summer, whilst many of the staff had been at camp for anything from two years to over a decade. Nearly every part of daily life at camp was foreign to me, and at times it was intimidating trying to learn the ropes when my amazing colleagues breezed through their days seemingly effortlessly.

The truth I am glossing over is that camp wasn’t peachy for the first few weeks and I nearly left. To put it simply, I felt I was out of my depth and didn’t belong. It got to the point that I was on the phone to Camp America (the company that hired me) discussing which flight I could get. I didn’t want to leave, but I couldn’t keep up the façade of competence much longer.

But, the next thing camp taught it’s easy to be too hard on yourself. It’s totally okay that a first-time staff member isn’t perfect straight away, and it was also totally fine to feel overwhelmed. The challenge of taking on something so wholly new shone a light on the fact that often the only thing standing in your way is you.

You’re on duty at camp twenty-two hours a day, it’s not a shock that I found it a challenge. But that’s just the thing about camp, you’re always there. It’s a bubble, a tiny universe quite cut off from the rest of the world. You’ve no TV, limited phone access and only your camp friends for company – you’re everything is camp. It’s a break from the real world, a safe space where you can be you but a whole lot louder, and a chance to alter your perspective.

And what alters that perspective? What is the amazing thing that makes all the difficult bits worthwhile? The kids. You think kids are great, and then you live with them non-stop for two months and you realise that they’re actually really, really incredible. Sure, kids can be annoying, they are kids after all. But, nothing prepares you for how funny and warm they can be, how open they are with their staff or what a simple pleasure it is to be instrumental part of their amazing summer. Camp showed me that working with kids is one of the best jobs there is. No question.

The Americans were the other bit of amazing. Sure, there were some cultural differences, confused looks as the Brits uttered phrases like “pass the cutlery”, “it’s rubbish” and “quarter past two”, but ultimately their generosity was something else. From taking us in on our days off to driving us around on our free nights, the Americans genuinely welcome these strange international staff into a place many of them had called a second home their entire lives. Community is a strange concept to me, but it’s really a huge part of being at camp, and it’s something I truly experience in my time at summer camp.

To the stoic and tight-lipped Brit in me, so much of summer camp life feels cheesy and alien. What’s all the fuss, right? It was just a job, no point gushing about it. But then, it was more than just a job. International staff don’t travel there for the money, they go for the experience. It was a challenge, a chance to gain a new-found confidence, a break from the real world that added a dash of perspective to the life you return to. Sure, it was just a job, but it was a pretty great job to have.

Somebody this summer told me that fun is a choice. No matter how exhausted you are, or little enthusiasm you have left, there is always a choice to find a little levity in your day. It’s a good philosophy to take home with you.

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