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Outdoors Bound

Many teens would like to find a summer job, but they don’t know what’s out there for them.

“I never thought of how many opportunities to be a camp counselor there were until my mom suggested I should contact the park district,” says Paul Kendricks, 18, of Marcellus, who worked as a youth camp counselor last summer and plans to return this year.

Every year eager teens can consider varied counseling jobs that offer a fun working environment, the chance to be outdoors and an opportunity to make a difference in the community. Such jobs can be part or full time, at day or residential camps.

Camp counselors work with swimmers, children with special needs, budding musicians and artists, and kids whose parents are looking for day care. They demonstrate and supervise crafts, organize sack races and help build charges’ self-confidence. “Camp counselors often become role models for the campers. They are, in essence, summertime teachers,” says family therapist Maureen Anderson of DeWitt.

“Campers aren’t the only ones who reap the rewards of higher self-esteem,” Anderson says. Teens who have the opportunity to teach and mentor younger kids often find their own self-confidence gets a boost. “It can be a mutually rewarding summer experience.”

Working as a camp counselor also gives teens a creative, structured and energizing introduction into the world of work. “He has learned the value of being part of a working team that aids in maintaining the safety of campers as well as fellow counselors, promotes a rewarding and enriching environment, and has the opportunity to explore a potential career path,” says Kendricks’ mother, Annie.

Teen-agers who think a counseling job might be for them must first narrow down their choices. “I knew I didn’t have the patience to work with very young kids, so I applied for a mid-level counselor position. I work with kids that are 8, 9 and 10 years old,” says Alisha Balch, 17, of Manlius. Your teen’s personality will provide additional clues about the right kind of position to pursue.

Employment counselor Emily Hodges of North Syracuse suggests teens look at their hobbies or favorite school subjects. “Whether artistic, musical or sports-oriented, kids should look into programs that complement their personality and interests. Explore camps that they would attend if they were younger and then investigate whether those programs are hiring youth counselors.”

Locating jobs

Networking is also helpful for finding a summer camp counseling position. Suggest your teen talk to his or her guidance counselor at school to learn about possibilities, or to teachers to learn of specific academic camps. Talk to the band director to find out about music camps or the coach for names of soccer camps. “Ask friends how they found counseling positions and what they liked, or even disliked, about the job,” Hodges suggests.

Your town’s park district is another great place to consider applying as a counselor. Cheerleading clinics, volleyball camps and guided nature hikes organized by park districts often require counselors.

Tony Burkinshaw, recreation supervisor for the Lysander Parks and Recreation Department, recommends lining up leads now instead of waiting for the summer break to begin. “Applying early, sometime during March or early April, lets us know who wants to return as a counselor, lifeguard, etc., and how many new counselors we’ll need,” he explains. “It also allows for enough time to get candidates in for interviews, run background checks on prospective counselors, and determine what supplies newly hired counselors may need. Applying early helps everyone feel fully prepared for the first day of camp.”

Do teens need prior experience to get a job as a camp counselor? “No,” says Burkinshaw. “But it does not hurt to have some qualification or some type of experience.” For instance, baby sitting can count. “Even if it’s not previous camp counseling or ‘formal’ training, experience working in some capacity with children is a must.”

If your teen is considering a job as a camp counselor, becoming certified in CPR and first aid can help his candidacy; sometimes certification is a prerequisite, in fact.

“Any type of leadership roles are also excellent qualities to list on applications,” Burkinshaw says. Participation in team sports, band or the school musical can offer more items for the application and another adult who can be listed as a reference. The band director, cheering squad coach, yearbook and Spanish club faculty adviser are all wonderful references for kids who have no employment history.

Hodges suggests teens take the application process seriously. “Ask teachers or baby-sitting clients for letters of recommendation to illustrate dependability to prospective employers. These steps will not only help young people land the job but learn how to search and apply for a job.” 

Those young people who make it past the application level to the interview stage will discover that personality is a factor in order to be hired. “We look for counselors with a high level of patience that are also flexible, fun and energetic,” Burkinshaw notes.

Most teen camp counselors are at least 16 years of age, but sometimes younger kids can be hired. Programs like Lysander’s Counselor in Training course enable teens who have finished eighth grade and have their parent or legal guardian’s written permission to be hired as junior counselors. “Additionally, residence in the village you’re applying in is usually required,” adds Burkinshaw, referring to restrictions common to Lysander and many other park districts.

For some, working as a camp counselor is more than just a summer job—it can be the springboard to choosing a college major. Several teachers, social workers, guidance counselors and day-care givers trace the spark of their career passion back to summer camp counseling jobs. 

Some youth counselors have also discovered a desire to work in the non-profit sector. “I worked at a camp for children with serious and life-threatening illnesses as a teen. From the first summer, I knew I wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids who attended the camp,” says Leslie Miller of Cicero, who works as a grant writer and fund-raiser.

What to expect

When applying for any summer job, teens need to consider how it will affect their lives. “Teens should not feel shy or uncomfortable enquiring how much the job pays and what the hours are,” says Hodges, the employment counselor.

She adds, “Many like the flexibility and low commitment of only working during the summer, while some teens want the security of knowing they have a job beyond the summer.” If your teen is saving for a car, college or a new computer game system, he needs to determine how much he needs to make per hour and how many hours a week he’s willing to work to ensure this position will enable him to meet his goal.

Equally important is determining if your child requires any immunizations or physicals before being hired as a counselor and whether he or she is covered by insurance in the event of an accident or injury.

Hodges says, “Prospective employers appreciate when candidates arrive prepared for an interview. Teens should take a few questions to the interview to demonstrate their interest and commitment to the position.”

Does the position require him to bring sun block, insect repellant or special clothing? Will he be trained to handle conflicts between campers or bullying among campers as well as peers? “These are just a few typical scenarios that teens should understand before accepting a position,” she says.

Camp counselors should also expect to have fun on the job. For the right teen, the work offers a chance to make new friends in a lively atmosphere filled with opportunities to take on responsibility and to grow as an independent professional.

“This year two of my friends are planning on applying with me. Car pooling will be a great way to save money and make sure we’re all to work on time,” Kendricks says.

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York