Working as a counsellor on summer camps in the USA is a great travel experience, you get to make a little money, meet cool people and travel around the country after camps is finished. I’ve worked on 3 different summer camps in the states, but one story stands out.
GETTING FIRED FROM CAMP
I had already completed my first summer camp experience, through an agency, a couple of years previously so now I knew a bit more about what was going on I thought I could negotiate a better pay packet if I told Camp America (the organisation I used previously) that I had already been offered a job by a camp (which wasn’t exactly true).
In the meantime, I was contacting all the richest camps across the US, telling them that I had been accepted by Camp America and would like to work at their camp specifically, “I have loads of experience”, “I’m great with kids etc etc”. I assumed that the wealthier camps would offer higher salaries, and I figured if I’m going to work hard all summer, I’d rather work hard surround in jetskis and climbing walls!
My plan worked, and soon after this, I got offered a general counsellor position at arguably the wealthiest camp in the country. The parents were paying $10,000 for each kid to attend for the 2 months summer session. Unbelievable, and I was so excited to be going. It should have been a great summer. But things didn’t go according to plan.
I flew from Dublin to New York, and then on to Pennsylvania where the camp was located. Once there, we had a few days orientation where we met everyone, started to learn the ropes a little, before the kids arrived. Things were perfect. The camp was super swanky, with amazing facilities, and even better was that all my co-counsellors were great people. I even met a gorgeous Australian girl, and things were going great. Friendships were formed, late night parties, early starts. The kids started to arrive and everything was ideal. One day, we were due to go to a water park with the kids, as we were about to jump on the bus, one of my favourite kids, a smart-ass little 12 year old, told me he should go to the bathroom before the bus journey. Good idea. So I let him run back to the bunk, about 20m away, go for a pee and he’s back in 2 minutes flat. We board the bus, have an amazing day, and return to camp where we have a kids party night.
When we get back to the bunk, we prepped the kids for the party and headed over to the other side of camp for the festivities. Just as I’m about to leave, the camp owner stops me and lets my co-counsellor and the kids go. “I’d like to have a word Johnny”. He tells me that I shouldn’t let a kid go to the bathroom unaccompanied. I try to tell him that the kid is 12 and it was 20m away, and I can see the bunk from where I’m standing, and then I go to follow the kids. He stops me again. “You’re fired Johnny, my son will take you to the bus station now“. And just like that, my summer of fun was shut down. They didn’t let me say goodbye to my friends, or the kids. Packed my bags in 5 minutes and was escorted off the premises.
SLEEPING IN THE BUS STATION
So here I was, heartbroken and angry, I was shipped to a random bus station in the middle of Pennsylvania at 11pm and told thanks for your effort, see you never.
I was screwed. I had no phone, no job, next to no money, and my cutural exchange visa for the USA automatically expires within 7 days if i’m unemployed, and I have no ticket home. Great. I slept in the station with my backpack and got the 1st bus to New York City Central Station. I found the cheapest hostel I could find and booked in, called home to explain my not-so-awesome situation and got in contact with CAMP AMERICA. They were easy to deal with and told me that other people get fired for genuine misdemeanors so I should be grand, I gotta sit tight and wait for someone to get fired elsewhere and they’ll try to get me a job in their camp! All with the knowledge that sitting tight is all well and good but when day 7 comes, my visa expires and I become an illegal immigrant in America haha! not good!
That night, I slept in the bus station, hugging my backpack, and waited for the ticket office to open in the morning. From there I got the 1st bus to New York City Central Station. Suddenly thousands of people whizzing around the city, I had no idea what was going on. I found the cheapest hostel I could find and booked into their 16 bed dorm. I called home to explain my not-so-awesome situation and got in contact with the agency. I told them my sob story and how furious I was with the camp for firing me unfairly, but they were more focused on finding me a new camp before I was deported.
Camp America were great, they spoke to me twice daily, telling me that other people get fired for genuine misdemeanors so I should be fine, just sit tight in the hostel for a couple of days and wait for someone to get fired elsewhere and they’ll try to get me a job in their camp. That sounds like a great plan, but it’s now 6 days until my visa expires, and I become an illegal immigrant in America.
So I sat tight, and sat tight, and sat tight and on day 5 of waltzing around New York each day on my own, wondering what’s going to happen to me, Camp America called me to tell me they had found a vacancy for me. A camp in upstate New York. Sounds great, I thought. They went on to stress that they could see from their records that I had come from a very wealthy camp and that this camp was not quite so wealthy
GETTING DEPORTED IN 5 DAYS FROM NOW
“No problem guys, I’m just happy I’m not getting deported – just give me the directions and I’ll be on my way“. And so I went. But wow, was she right! The next camp wasn’t ‘quite as wealthy’. at all That was quite the euphemism apparently. I had been posted in a camp for disadvantaged kids from the ghettos of New York. Harlem and Queen’s, you get the picture. The kids come from the worst blocks, and the poorly funded camp is a way to get them out of there, if only for a summer. Most of the kids don’t have fathers, something I could relate to at least, but their daddies had been shot, locked-up, overdosed, died of HIV, it was one grim story after another.
There wasn’t one white kid in the entire camp, and actually there were just a sprinkling of counsellors from Europe too, most of the other counsellors were former campers here, who had managed to escape their situations and had become counsellors, social workers and mentors, giving back to their communities. As a white guy from Ireland, I was out of place! And the kids new it too. “Cracker this, cracker that“. I threw my stuff in the shared bunk, met my co-counsellor, and I’m not ashamed to admit I didn’t unpack my bag properly for 6 days, assuming that I wouldn’t be able to settle properly and I’d quit and head for the airport.
SUMMER OF A LIFETIME
I threw myself into the experience, gained the respect of the kids, met some amazing other counsellors from around the world, and transpired to have one of the best summers of my life. Sure, the kitchen staff were former crip members, and yes the police came to arrest one of the counsellors because he had skipped his bail to come to camp, and yes the nurse became pregnant during camp to the guy who was arrested, so the camp was a little rough around the edges! But what a brilliant summer, where I made some friends for life. It taught me a lot, I grew up more in those 2 months, than I had in 4 years at university. And as tough as I may have had it with poverty growing up in a single parent family on welfare in Ireland, this was a different level and it humbled me.
I bonded well with the manager of the camp, an amazing older lady, and she ended up offering me a job as a ‘real’ counsellor in New York for the following year. Throughout the conversations with the manager, she discovered that my rich camp had employed too many counsellors by mistake, and had been waiting for someone to make the smallest imaginable error so they could fire them and save themselves some money. I was just the unlucky one.
So we gave the kids the summer of their life, partied too hard, didn’t sleep enough, fell in love, partied some more and soon it was over. Just a beautiful blur, and never had I been so thankful for that asshole who fired me undeservedly, so here’s to you buddy, cheers!