Mar 16, 2009, 3:14 PM
An interview with Alden Olmsted, prior camper and camp counselor
Alden is a tall guy. Dirty blond hair and blue eyes. He easily puts you at ease with his unassuming nature, friendly persona, and inviting charisma. If he told you he used to be a camp counselor, you wouldn't blink an eye. You might even say "I bet you were probably good at it, too." In fact, he was one. He pulls up a chair next to my desk-- mountain dew in hand—and begins to tell me his story.
Alden grew up in a single parent home. His first camp experience was back when he was 9 with a local church that sent 5 to 10 kids to camp each year. This time, it would be him and his brother. He knew part of the reason his Mom sent him to camp was to get "a break" from taking care of two boys- at least for just a week. His destination: Mt. Gilead in Sebastopol right smack in the middle of the redwoods. Little did he know that this little summer break would have an affect on him for the rest of his life.
For 3-4 years, Alden would be excited about the prospect of going to camp, but once the time came, he'd complain and whine about having to go. After all, he didn't know anyone there and the thought of being gone a whole week was just dreadful. But year after year, he'd find himself back at camp with each year getting better. He met his friend Danny whom he became cabin mates with for the next few summers.
The summer when he was 15, 7 out of 8 kids in his cabin were already good friends. Once again, the odd man out. Who knew that he'd still be good friends with these kids 22 years later! He absolutely loved his camp experience. From then on, he worked in all different areas of camp during his transition years until he was old enough to be a counselor. He worked at Mount Gilead for a few years and in Camp Maymac with their BMX program.
What brought Alden from a camper to a counselor? His answer is quite simple. He became a counselor because he wanted to stay around the great camp environment for "as long as [he] could." It was a very smooth transition for him. "After having a great experience, it was a natural response to want to give back"-- but his reasons for doing so are much more involved and tied in to what many generations of campers can relate and connect to.
So what is one of the aspects of camp that made it such a great experience to keep coming back to? He candidly shares with me, "[One of the] reasons that camp fosters long-lasting friendships and social growth so much more than any other experience is that it’s the opposite of typical school life; meaning, that instead of being judged on popularity and one’s past. It’s like everyone is given a clean slate. We don’t know these new people from anyone, so it’s a fresh chance to really be yourself and learn to be comfortable in your own skin. This is why many people have a “life-changing” experience at summer camp-- because they’re finally free to just be themselves…and have others accept them just as they are."
How did Alden's camp perspective change when he went from being a camper to being a counselor? It didn't change much. It was still a very fun experience, and from the sound of things, even more enriching. As a counselor, he was able to work under two very different camp operations that were on opposite sides of the social spectrum: One was a small church camp working on various jobs; The other was a diverse, low income camp where he expanded the BMX program and worked with inner-city kids. He was now the person that the kids looked up to and he offers that sometimes, "you just need someone outside of your family to tell you [that] you're all right."
The benefits of becoming a counselor when you've already been a camper familiar with the camp experience? For Alden, he was the kid who initially didn't know anyone else at camp when he first started. He knew what it was like to be an outsider. He knew what it was like to dread going to camp the first couple of years. But he also knew that those feelings passed. He knew what made (and what didn't make) his camp experience fun. He knew what he would've appreciated being in that situation. So when he finally became a counselor, he wanted to "make sure every kid had the best experience possible – especially those kids that were coming to camp by themselves." He was able to understand what a new camper might be experiencing, draw them out, have them feel comfortable in the group and eventually have them have a darn good time like he did! It's only fitting that his BMX kids would dub him "Big Al" and ask for him when they went to camp the following year.
Great staff, like Alden, is one of your most important resources. They are the face of your camp and are a contributing factor in making or breaking a camper's experience. Your small investment in staff management (recruiting, guiding, and providing adequate training) will take you a long way and be returned ten fold, especially if your new counselor has attended your camp for years. Happy campers will return year after year and even eventually become counselors themselves. Satisfied counselors will naturally pass down their enthusiasm to their campers. Your happy campers can potentially be a new generation of counselors.
I'd like to thank Alden for sharing his time and story with me.
See what he's doing now at Aldenolmsted.com
Mt. Gilead http://www.mtgilead.org
Camp Maymac http://www.cityteam.org/maymac/
Content Manager - MySummerCamps.com
(This post was edited by CharisseMSC on Mar 18, 2009, 2:48 PM)