Camp leaders: Extending impact beyond the summer

Courtesy of Los Altos REcreation
As campers graduate from shortest archer in the row to leader of the bowmen, they put their learning to work.

Old enough to be responsible adults but young enough to clearly recall their childhood days, camp counselors are often able to connect with campers and teach them a variety of skills.

Zack Silva, Los Altos recreation coordinator, said teens working as counselors learn about "providing customer service, planning activities and multitasking. They also benefit from working in a team." The leadership skills they build help in their future careers - but also deeply benefit the campers, as young participants get to study role models in enthusiastic action.

Camp heroes inspire future camp leaders

Sarah Brotzel attended Los Altos' camps from age 3 onward. Now a staff member, she loves being a part of camp traditions like nicknames, storytelling and invented games.

"Being surrounded by kids just wanting to be outside, ready to be silly and have fun, gives me so much energy," she said.

Hidden Villa Camp Director Ke’ili Deal fondly recalled her own first job as a counselor.

"I remember... how thrilled I was to finally join the ranks of the staff that I had looked up to for so long," she said.

Deal said she first joined the Hidden Villa community as a camper at age 8 who "would anxiously wait" during the school year to return to the place that "felt like home." Camp traditions included a closing ceremony, dubbed Float Night, during which campers shared songs, parade floats they built and wishes for Hidden Villa and the world.

"It is really heartwarming to see the campers all together and hear some of the things they have learned and the memories that they are leaving with," Deal said.

As camp director at Hidden Villa, Deal said she tries to "protect and build upon the safe space" she experienced as a young camper. One particularly memorable experience demonstrated this in her first year as a counselor. She was working with a Spanish-speaking 9-year-old boy who had come to Hidden Villa on scholarship and was "both excited and very nervous" for his first camp experience He taught her words in Spanish, and she taught him words in English.

As she watched him play with other campers, Deal said she learned that "playing is a language that is universal."

"As a new youth worker, this example of play as a teaching tool and empathy builder was instrumental in my passion for youth work," she said.

Seth Simas attended Hidden Villa as a camper throughout his childhood before joining the staff. He said that time at camp allowed him to explore what kind of person he was growing up to be - and ultimately guided him toward his career as a teacher. "Summer camp jobs are for people who have a unique interest in youth work, and being part of a community," he said.

"It sort of is like teaching, because you create aha moments," he added. "But it is (also) about creating experiences, and, at Hidden Villa, a culture of understanding and inclusivity."

Rewarding and challenging work

While working at camp is extremely rewarding, Deal said, it can be quite challenging as well. The hardest part for her was transitioning her mindset from being a camper to then creating that space for other kids. She credits her mentors and fellow staff for easing that transition.

"Having staff members that had been my counselors ... do really great activities and be really honest and open ... helped create that safe space that I was so excited to be part of," she said.

In particular, Deal was influenced by a program manager named Jake, whom she described as a "really supportive leader" and "accessible to kids." Once she assumed her own leadership position, Deal said, she tried to channel his example, often wondering what would Jake do in this moment.

Ties that bind

Nikki Bryant, Hidden Villa’s director of youth programs, said Hidden Villa’s camps enable youth to connect with an almost-adult figure who provides a voice of enthusiasm to encourage the young camper. With a few college-age heroes, even a camper who is having a hard time at first can grow toward Hidden Villa’s counselor-in-training program and become like his or her role models. Campers and staff form close bonds, according to Deal, who reported that approximately 70 percent of campers are returnees.

Deal said her experience at Hidden Villa taught many skills, including empathy - a skill that is transferrable anywhere.

"There’s a lot of leadership development, public speaking, risk management," Bryant noted. "Here you are … not only responsible for (yourself), but for a number of kids who are in your charge."

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