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Working on a Summer Camp in USA; My Experience

(EDIT 2021. This blog post is from 2010. Reflecting on my time working at a summer camp in the USA).

I was struggling with where to begin my blog. I was very tempted to start on my move to teaching English in Chiang Mai, Thailand. However, after listening to my housemate’s advice then it’s true that “it’s better to start AT the start“. So, my journey truly begins after graduating from university in England in June 2006, where I moved to the USA to work as a general counsellor at a kids camp.

Summer Camp in USA
Summer Camp in USA

About Summer Camp in USA

I’ll just spend a second or two explaining what a summer camp is and the opportunities they provide for people like you.

Basically, every summer hundreds of thousands of American kids get kicked out of their family homes and sent to the middle of nowhere, normally near a gorgeous forest and a lake, and get looked after by a group of international ‘counsellors’.

Colour War at Camp

Why You Should Consider Working at a Summer Camp in the USA

In a nutshell, working at a summer camp in America is not something you do for the money. You do it for the experience. And I promise you, it will be one of the best summers of your life.

The people

You’ll make friends for life. You will be surrounded with cool, like-minded people, generally aged between 19-26 from across Europe, North America and Australia. Come with a positive mindset. A lot of energy. And be ready for the time of your life. It’s full-on, and so are the people. Expect active, energetic, fun people.

No Experience

It’s a great opportunity for building a resume. Most ‘counsellors’ have no experience with kids so dont worry! (despite what the camp brochures tell the parents!)

Commitment

It’s not a big chunk of your life. Camps run for around 8 weeks

Money?

Pay depends on if you have worked with camps before: 1st timers get around $800 and returners get around $1200. Which for 8 weeks this is nothing BUT you do get a J1 visa which allows you to work for 8 weeks. AND then travel around America with your new-found friends for a couple of months. It’s normal for you to make life long friends and travel around America in groups of 4-10 people. It’s an adventure!

Agencies?

Should you use an agency? In terms of getting a job, a visa, travel/flights arranged etc it is MUCH EASIER to go through an agency such as Camp America. I would definitely recommend a first-timer to go through them. They charge around 429 GBP with no flights. Or 629GBP with flights. And then both include accommodation, visas etc all sorted out for you. Pain-free. True they make a lot of money from us but they are easy to deal with, very patient and understand and make it very easy for us

Savings

All-in-all you pretty much break even with cost versus pay. But I guarantee you will have some of the best times of your life, meet people from around the world and you will probably end up going back the next year!

Fun!

Keep it on the quiet but camp is famous for the parties, new partners, a few drops of alcohol, late nights springint for curfew, tips from parents and all-round good times. And a lot of American cheese!

Camp choice

A couple of summers back I worked as a general counsellor at a special needs camp, Round Lake Camp, in Pennsylvania. I had a really great time and it taught me to grow up a lot. Dealing with kids with Aspergers, Autism, Social Communication disorders, ADHD; It certainly makes you realise what you have and how lucky you are. Not to mention that I still visit my coworkers years on and I know I’ll always have a bed to stay on in various cities around the world.

My second experience at camp was very different, but still great, although not without a few bumps in the road…

Life Experience; Getting Fired From A Summer Camp in USA

My (Second) Time at Summer Camp in USA:

Now you get an idea about the general ideas behind camp I’m going to get all nostalgic and talk about my last summer camp in the USA. And despite having some of the best summers of my life, this experience wasn’t so great. But it’s also quite rare, so don’t be put off. And hey, 10 years later,I have a good story to tell, right?!

I had already completed my first Camp America experience a couple of years previously so now I knew a bit more about what was going on. I thought this time I could negotiate a better pay packet if I told Camp America that I had already been offered a job by a camp. In the meantime, I was contacting all the wealthiest camps across America telling them that I had been accepted by Camp America and would like to work at their camp. “I have loads of experience”, “I’m great with kids etc etc”. I mention above that you don’t do Summer Camps for the money. That’s for sure. But if you can maximise your pay packet while you’re here, then why not. Right?

My plan worked. And soon after this, I got offered a general counsellor position at one of the wealthiest camps in the country. The parents were paying $10,000 for each kid to attend. I mean jetskis, banana boats, rock climbing, everything. Awesome! It should have been a great summer. Should have. Yup.

However, I went to the camp, met a cracking group of people. Met a gorgeous Australian girl. And the camp? Wow. Out of this world. Things were going swimmingly but out of nowhere. I WAS FIRED within the first 10 days. Devasting.

What Happened?

I let a 12yo kid go to the bathroom on his own, all of about 30 feet away. A huge error apparently. But they said I should have gone into the bunk with him. It soon transpired that the camp was overstaffed and they were trying to get rid of people. I was the unfortunate one to commit the first minor transgression and therefore been removed.

Heartbroken and angry I was shipped to the bus station in the middle of Pennsylvania at 11pm and told thanks for your effort. See you never. WOW, I was screwed. No phone, no job, a JI visa which expires if I’m unemployed in the USA for 7 days and no ticket back home.

I slept in the station with my backpack and got the 1st bus to New York City Central Station. Finally, I found the cheapest hostel I could find and book a shared dorm room. I 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 misdemeanours so I should be fine. I just have to wait it out for someone to get fired elsewhere and they’ll try to get me a job in their camp. If the time went beyond the 7 days though, my visa expires and I become an illegal immigrant in America. Not ideal.

It always works out

So I sat tight, and sat tight, and sat tight and on day 5 of wondering around NYC 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. Working in upstate New York. 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 going to be a very, very different experience. Well, she was right, the next camp wasn’t ‘quite as wealthy’. That was a euphemism apparently.

I had been posted in a camp for disadvantaged kids from Brooklyn, Harlem and Queen’s, many of the children’s parents had been involved in gangs, prison, drug addicts etc across New York City. Wow. When I had planned for a summer at the rich-kids camps, this was going to be a whole different summer! But one of the best summers of my life was impending. Those stories of working at an American Summer camp are for another day.

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