There I was playing a game of American Eye Spy whilst driving down a highway on the outskirts of Chicago. Innocently chatting away to the people that would later become some of my closest friends in the world, I had no idea what was in store for me upon my arrival at Chi in several hours time. Did I know I was in for the best and most life changing summer of my life on that bus? Definitely not. But I was really, really excited because for the first time in my life I was going to summer camp! I’d only ever seen them in films before, featured in classics like The Parent Trap. Sadly, I wasn’t going there as a camper – but being a staff member is definitely the next best thing.
What a summer camp is depends on the type of camp you’re talking about. For example, there are private camps, underprivileged camps, speciality camps, day camps, special needs camps and faith/religion based camps. Each of these caters for a different target group, but runs on a similar structure and basis; they all cater for kids, they all run similar activities and they all feature staff from all over the world. Most camps are overnight camps too, so kids will live there full time for a small period. The differences depend on which type of camp you’re at. Religious based ones will of course implement certain aspects of religion into their day to day programme, whilst special needs camps will cater exclusively to the needs of special needs campers.
The camp I worked in, JCC Camp Chi, is actually one of the biggest (around 6000 acres) and oldest (92 years) in America. The best thing about the older camps is that since their birth, loads of cute little traditions have built up over the years. My camp was Jewish, so this was particularly prominent there.
As a non-Jewish and non-religious person I naturally had no idea what to expect from living amongst the culture for several months, but it was definitely was of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I don’t think camp would have been quite the same without singing the hamotzi before every kosher meal (this took some getting used to!) or Shabbat services, or song sessions with all the age old camp classics (Lean on me, The Hope, Pharaoh Pharaoh etc.) It just made it that much more special.
It might be surprising to hear, but a hefty percentage of staff members are actually international. I was amongst a 60 plus troop of people from countries including Britain, Israel and Australia. International staff tend to run the activities the kids go to – I was a radio specialist, for example. This basically means that the kids sign up to your activity and come along a few times to learn about your area. In my camp, they came for one hour a day across a six day period. Many other camps run in similar ways.
The other option is being a counsellor. If you’re one of these, you’ll live with the kids and spend all day taking them around activities and caring for them. This job takes some serious dedication. Even if you’re not a counsellor, you’ll be working with a cabin of kids at some point. For me, this was the most rewarding part of the job. If you’re in charge of an activity, you’re not always with the kids and because of this they’ll love seeing you when you’re there and they’ll think you’re super cool (they LOVE foreign accents, prepare yourself for lots of ‘Can you say “I’m a pretty Britty”?’)
If you do want to apply, it’s best to go through an agency that will help you through the application process and make sure your application gets circulated around all the relevant camps. I used Americamp, but there’s plenty of others to choose from. You basically pay them a fee and they get you to America. It’s pretty simple really. The application process can be quite stressful at times, especially if you don’t have a passport yet. If you’re anything like me you’ll end up in Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and London in an attempt to get across the pond. The cost of getting there will vary depending on the company you go through, but expect to pay anything up to a grand. You’ll of course get around this much back in wages, but it can be very costly.
Camp is probably the most amazing and unique experience in the world. The connection I feel to that place and the people I met there is so incredibly strong, it’s like I’ve been going there all my life and grown up with them. It’s difficult to explain, but the effect it has on you is like magic. I miss walking back to my cabin at night through a forest glimmering with fireflies. I miss saying hello everyone whilst walking around. I miss waking up to the feeling that I was about to spend the day inspiring younger people. If you’re even slightly tempted to go, then go for it! I’ve barely covered anything but the basics in the article, but I can guarantee that you’ll have the most amazing summer of your life by a country mile.