Your staff is a mix of former campers, Junior Counselors and newcomers. What’s that combination like?
We hire approximately 80 counselors, 40 male and 40 female each summer. Though the majority of the staff is US citizens, we do have an amazing international staff. The staff in a lot of ways reflects the camper population and community; we have campers and staff that come from 20 different states and 14 different countries. This season we will have thirty-eight former Wekeela campers returning as staff. I think that’s pretty fantastic.
Our Junior Counselors are required to take a year away from camp and do something else— broaden their horizons and experiences so that when they come back as junior counselors, they are going into their senior year of high school. The junior counselors do have to complete an application and interview — it’s selective — but they are all former campers. The analogy I’d give you is this: The Junior Counselor Program is like the minor leagues. Basically, it’s the opportunity to groom former campers to become staff. Usually we have a dozen or so junior counselors, so it’s really nice that almost all of them come back the following year as full-fledged counselors. They know the traditions of the camp and what the camp is all about. You can’t really teach passion. They love the place and that spreads to campers.
What do you initially look for in a camp counselor?
I start by explaining that resident camp (a.k.a. sleepaway camp) is an intense and unique work environment. I ask them, “Do you think a counselor you can help young people become self-reliant by encouraging them to make positive choices, solve problems and accept responsibility for personal behavior?”
If I don’t hear an emphatic YES in a second or less I stop the interview. I want to hire a person who wants to work with children. My next question, which seems really simple, is: “What do you think of kids?” That’s always a great way to dig deeper and discover if they’re really cut out to work with children.
I’m also interested to see what experiences they’re seeking over the summer, what their goals are. In a lot of ways I think it’s tougher to recruit staff than campers. I feel that with the economy getting better, college students may be seeking internships or other opportunities, so it makes it even harder to recruit staff. I like to find out if they attended camp when they were younger. I ask what they remember most, what their fondest memory was. If they didn’t go to camp I like to find out if they have had any experience working with children.
How does your own intuition about the potential employee play into the initial interview?
This is my 18th year at Wekeela and my 25th year working professionally with children and their parents, so I’ve interviewed thousands and thousands of people. When you ask that question there is one particular person who comes to mind that I interviewed years ago. His application was good, it wasn’t great, but it was very interesting. He was a lifeguard, which is a coveted position at a sleep away camp. I really enjoyed speaking with him, so my instincts told me that this person would be a great addition to our staff and that the kids would enjoy him. He had a ton of enthusiasm and energy. I could tell he was plain fun. Although he was young — he was just finishing up his freshman year of college — I felt his personality really came shining through in our phone interview. When I called his references, I was surprised. They told me he was immature and that he had a lot of learning to do. They didn’t give me a glowing review of this person. And honestly, I was disappointed but not discouraged. After all, I thought he sounded great. Based on his personality, he sold me. Even though the references weren’t great, I still offered him the job. I let him know that the references he gave me didn’t give good impressions. That was a bit of an eye opener for him. He worked for us for five years and he was phenomenal, one of the best counselors I’ve ever hired. So sometimes I definitely follow my gut instinct.
Do you think it’s harder today for counselors to be positive role models for campers?
The digital age that we live in has changed our lives dramatically. In my humble opinion, the Internet was supposed to make our lives simpler, but it in a lot of ways it has made it anything but. Now it seems that people are busier than ever before. But I think that at the end of the day, the kids who would be counselors today — the Generations Ys — are dealing with a lot of things: one of the worst job markets in decades, college debt, and unemployment. There’s a lot of gloom and doom that has been shoved down their throats. Some have a false sense of entitlement as well. The Millennial or Gen Y’s have had to rethink success. It’s less about material prosperity and more about happiness. I’ve seen a lot of counselors come to camp that are pre-law or engineering, they come to camp and see that working with kids is so rewarding that they realize that life’s about happiness and giving back. So they decide, oftentimes by spending time at camp, that they want a career that makes them happy, that fulfills them.
Also, camp is a place for kids to learn from older kids. College-age students possess a completely different kind of authority than parents do, and they put it to good use getting children to do things that they may not do at home such as setting the table, making their bed, taking risks and accepting challenges. Campers emulate instructors, they absorb everything. For college kids working at a camp, they learn how to focus their attention towards others.
What questions do you ask applicants?
One of my favorite questions to ask is: “What does your closet look like?”
When I say that, I catch them off guard. I think that question throws them off, but when they dig deep to answer it, I find out a lot about that person. As a counselor, you have to think quickly on your feet. You’re juggling a lot of different responsibilities. When they do tell me what their closet looks like, it really allows me to find out a little more about them: Are they organized? Are they messy? What’s the story behind this person?
Another question is: “Tell me something you’re most proud of.”
This tells me about 90% of what I need to know about this person. It also tells me what; if anything, that person is working on to improve. Depending on how that question is answered, I can preface my comments with, “We’re all a work in progress, no one’s perfect.” This deflates the situation a little bit, because some of these kids are nervous in the interview process.
We talked about role models earlier, and one of the questions I ask related to this topic is, “Are you comfortable being a role model?”
Counselors are the ultimate role-model. There are so many people that are counting on you. Parents entrust us with their children. Maybe the best way to explain it is the scene from The Amazing Spiderman comic book series, when Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker (Spiderman) “With great power, comes great responsibility.”
I want my staff to understand that working at camp is a real job.
I think it’s unique how much training and mentoring camps give their staff. Tell me a little bit about your staff-training program at Wekeela.
Yes. We have a week-long development training, better known as “Staff Week.” There are a lot of things that happen during this week: rules and regulations, things like that. But it’s also about getting the camp physically ready, and about team building and workshops. It always amazes me how after only two or three days staff — that has just come together — becomes an incredibly close group. When you see staff become real friends, you can start to see the connection. And that’s what camp is about — connections. Connections lead to community. Every camp has its own culture, its own personality, and that comes from the top. Camp teaches the staff, and the staff in turn teaches the children. Camp is about meaningful relationships. Camp is about community.
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