From Camper to Counselor: Grow your own summer camp staff

Alina Bitel
Written by
for Camps USA
From Camper to Counselor: Grow your own summer camp staff

How important is it to assemble a great summer camp staff? Consider this: When hundreds of excited, nervous kids step off the bus the first day, their counselors are the ones who greet them. When a worried parent calls, an administrator is the reassuring voice on the other end. When an emergency arises, when a kickball game needs another player, when a young nature enthusiast wants to identify a species of lizard, when a scraped knee needs some immediate TLC, or when someone needs to teach the spirit song, staff members are the ones who rise to the challenge.

A camp’s success depends on finding qualified workers with energetic, positive attitudes. Don’t risk hosting a lousy summer by putting out a blanket call for counselors. Instead, recruit students and families who are already emotionally invested in your camp and familiar with its structure. Raise your own staff members by providing a path for campers to become leaders.


1. Grow role models.

If you want today’s campers to become tomorrow’s employees, they must see the appeal. Counselors who look like they’re having a blast will inspire others to follow in their footsteps.

Good counselors have that unique combination of a kid’s enthusiasm and an adult’s sense of responsibility. When hiring and training staff, look for role models, not babysitters. If a counselor is hanging out on the sidelines, he shouldn't expect his campers to get too enthused, but if he’s the first one jumping down the water-slide or trying the weird new game, his attitude will be contagious, and kids will consider camp a cool place to spend the summer, even when they’re older.

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As a director, you can ensure that your employees stay happy and involved by fostering unity among the team. Plan games and activities for orientation, assign staff to work together making decorations, and host special dinners and outings between sessions. Address complaints as they arise and do everything you can to accommodate unsatisfied staff members. Not only will you encourage people to reapply year after year, but you’ll also create a positive working environment to attract new applicants.


2. Grow leaders.

Staff training doesn't have to start a week before camp; it can begin years earlier. Former campers make great counselors. They know how the program works, they feel a strong sense of allegiance to your camp, and they’re motivated to recreate their own great experiences for others.

Develop a path of leadership for every interested camper, whether that involves opportunities to informally guide a group or a structured counselor-in-training program. As the same participants return to camp each year, allow them increased responsibilities and freedoms. Young children can volunteer as the “teacher’s helper” and lead the line or choose the games. Older children might enjoy planning and coordinating activities, and teenagers can work as junior counselors for elementary-aged kids or co-teach a class for their own age group.

A multi-tiered leadership program will keep veteran campers engaged and excited as they receive more independence and responsibility each subsequent summer. Kids will look forward to growing up at your camp when they see the fun things they can do in the future, and you’ll recruit new families when they realize that your camp offers a long-term community and career.


3. Grow professionals.

Once former campers become counselors, don't allow their talents to stagnate. Most staff members appreciate opportunities to advance, so institute a concrete, achievable career ladder, which will increase employee retention rate by giving workers a goal to work toward.

Provide professional development seminars, classes, and meetings on a range of topics, such as working with special needs students, communicating with parents, or becoming an official promoter at schools. You might also offer specialized certifications, like life-guarding or scuba instruction.

You never know where brilliant ideas will come from. Make it a point to give every staff member the chance to suggest improvements. As certain staff return and you get a better idea of their abilities, teach them about some of the camp’s inner workings and administrative affairs. You want excellent employees to become more involved, so periodically chat with dedicated counselors to determine if they have underutilized skills, like marketing, organizing, or writing curriculum.

Many camps operate under a hierarchy, from counselors and instructors to supervisors and managers. However your program is set up, explain to all new recruits the duties of each position and the path employees would take in order to rise in the ranks.

By establishing a career path from camper to counselor, you can grow your own staff and guarantee that your camp is always run by an enthusiastic, talented, dedicated team.




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