Be prepared to forgo showering in favour of much-needed sleep, writes Grace Ellis.
Each morning, we raised the American flag, and in the evenings we built fires from scratch to toast marshmallows. The summer camp I worked at — an hour and a half drive into the mountains outside San Diego — was as traditional as it gets. All the cliches you can think of — we had 'em. No two summer camp experiences are going to be the same, but what follows are some tips for young Kiwis considering a season as a camp counsellor:
The first day of camp: Kids Arrive
As the buses trundle up the final leg of the hills, camp counsellors stand by with waving arms, chanting the camp song, welcoming kids to their summer residence. Bright-eyed children swallowed up by their backpacks and oversized printed T-shirts waddle off the bus one by one. The kids look like little angels and it seems as though camp is going to be an absolute breeze. Yet, I can't help but feel anxious that parents are actually trusting me to look after their most precious possessions.
Don't speak too soon
Boy did underestimate what I was in for. Within the hour, children have gone from cute, well-mannered cherubs to Satan's prodigies. I realise now why parents send their children to camp: sanity. Girls are either screaming through the main hall, forming an alliance or crying from homesickness. Divide and conquer seems to be the way to go when dealing with large groups of miniature humans. Count up your campers and start the day's outdoor adventures. California is stupidly, ridiculously hot in summer so walking from A to B is already strenuous enough. To make matters worse, in the dry heat of 30C, you're dealing with children who have the attention span of a goldfish. So walking a five-minute track can take 20. Though you might be adamant you've managed to lasso every last camper, count again. There will always be a child who got distracted and was left behind.
The camp songs you despise, the children love
Every American summer camp comes with camp songs. I love a good sing-along every now and again, but when it comes to singing a song before every single meal and bedtime, as well as every bus ride and hike, they can begin to seem like a chore — you do it because you have to, not because you want to. This feeling will only intensify as the campers begin to request the same song for hours on end. With bleeding ears, you have no choice but to politely suggest another, not so horrendous tune.
Getting back to nature
I probably sound cynical at this point. But don't get me wrong, there were definitely more high points than low. Going to a camp completely isolated from civilisation, you begin to realise just how much you rely on material items. Whether you're more of a glamper or like to get down and dirty with nature, you don't need electricity or a cellphone. Being present with your surroundings, including people, is one of the best feelings you will ever encounter. I urge you to step away from your phone and look up for a minute. You just might like what you see.
Showers are pointless
Most people shower every day, but at summer camp it's just a waste of precious nap time. For one, you're constantly tired, so you may as well use your time wisely. Two, you're constantly surrounded by dirt and felt-tip markers in the tiny hands of children — so what's the point? Yeah, you probably smell, but so does every other camp counsellor. Au naturel is ingrained into the summer camp lifestyle — deal with it.
Becoming a critter combatant
Being forced to act as a human shield against tarantulas, bats and mice is not uncommon at camp. In fact it helps you to get over any other irrational fears pretty quickly. But coming from New Zealand, where the most ferocious animal around is a possum, it's a little easier said than done. Clenching a broom in one hand and a flashlight in the other, you've just gotta suck it up and do it for the little critters — the children, not the bugs. If all else fails and the spider pounces at you, just accept defeat and sleep outside for the rest of summer camp.
Camp as a form of natural contraception
If you're experiencing baby fever and looking for a natural remedy, try working at a summer camp. The screaming, crying and hair-pulling was enough to put me off having children for years to come. Looking after other people's kids for a few months is a good way to test your physical and mental ability to bring up a child full-time.
Memories and friendships to last
Spending every waking moment together tests the best of relationships, so when you make a best friend at camp, you know they'll stick around. I've never met a group of more empowering and accepting women than at summer camp. Which is probably why the campers and staff keep coming back. There's an indescribable feeling you get — some call it "camp magic". To me, camp magic happens when a child's eyes light up and a smile stretches across their face, looking as though they've never experienced such happiness.
There is truly nothing more rewarding.
Through the laughter and the tears, my campers and colleagues were all a part of what made the experience so memorable. Though undoubtedly challenging in every way imaginable, if you can conquer summer camp, you can damn well conquer anything.