by Jeff Ackerman - Elmwood Day Camp

I believe that a unique opportunity exists for a camp counselor to influence the life of each and every camper. It is unique in that the relationship is truly like no other that a child experiences. Counselors function in the parent role but are not the parent. Counselors function in the teacher role but they are not the teacher. Counselors function as coaches but they are not the coach. Counselors function as a friend but are not the friend. The counselor then, can be perceived as a combination of parent, teacher, coach and friend without the preconceived notions that the child and the adult bring to each of the other relationships. There is the potential for a very special relationship to unfold. In this special relationship there need not be the same set of pressures and demands that come to bear in each of the other relationships.

I also believe it is critical for the Counselor to change her self perception of what she means to the child. If the Counselor can see herself as the Human Development Specialist then there is an increased likelihood that she will behave in that fashion and truly influence the growth and development of the child. The Counselor will also take her responsibility more seriously and participate in the changing perception of the job itself (it always stings when I hear someone cast aspersion on being “just a camp counselor”).
There are very few jobs that are more important than one which can alter the course of a child’s life.

There are specific areas and ways in which a Counselor can influence a child. Over the course of my career as a camp director I have developed what I believe is a manageable and understandable set of categories in which the Counselor operates as a Human Development Specialist. These areas are:

1. relationship specialist
2. group leader
3. teacher of appropriate behavior
4. motivator
5. role model

Within each of these categories there are a specific set of desired outcomes for each camper. For example in the area of relationship specialist the goals for each camper are:
a. to be accepted for who I am
b. to have the opportunity to play with age mates
c. to experience the joys of camp with other kids
d. to learn how others feel
e. to discover what I am good at and what I have a passion for doing

Each of the other categories has a specific set of desired outcomes. Each of these can be developed to be consistent with the value system and the objectives of the individual camp.

I have also found it to be important that the camp develop the concept of Human Development Specialist throughout the hiring process, staff orientation, supervision and training during the season and as part of the Performance Review. This leads to a greater sense of satisfaction for the staff and a greater understanding of the meaningfulness of the work that they do.

It is my hope that some day (in the not too distant future) the phrase “just a counselor” will be no longer…

Jeff Ackerman has been the director of Elmwood Day Camp for the past 19 years, and has been in camping for 30 years. He holds a PhD in psychology from the University of Michigan.
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