By Lindsay Nielsen, V Form
Building Bonds with Campers at Brantwood
It was 2:47 a.m. I was woken abruptly by a LED flashlight shining directly into my eyes. “Ms. Nielsen?” one of my campers whispered to me. Her face was red and damp. “We have a problem.” She avoided eye contact. I immediately knew what was wrong. This incident had happened twice before. I rolled out of bed, slipped on my rainboots, and attempted to quietly open the squeaky, wooden door that led outside. After silently leaving the shack with my camper, I walked her to the Wayside (the bathroom) and waited on the porch as she washed up. When we returned to the cabin, I placed her sleeping bag, blanket ,and wet clothes into a plastic bag. Grabbing my sleeping bag from my bedframe, I tossed it onto her top bunk and smoothed out the sides. Later that morning, I washed all of her belongings while the campers participated in morning exercises. I made sure no one knew whose items I was cleaning or rumors would spread like wildfire.
During my time at Brantwood Camp for Girls, I lived in a junior cabin with twelve and thirteen year olds. Brantwood started as a camp for boys in 1904, and, in 1982, Brantwood added a separate camp for girls just down the road. St. Markers have volunteered at Brantwood since 1920. It is remarkable that St. Markers have helped underprivileged kids enjoy a memorable, summer experience for such a long time. Last summer, I was glad to continue that tradition.
At camp, every obstacle I encountered shaped me as a person. Being in a setting that was so foreign to my everyday life, I had to quickly adapt to the new conditions. In an unfamiliar environment, I had to enforce the rules, be a role model and keep the campers happy. How does one manage to be a camper favorite, while being strict at the same time? I understood that their success at camp required them to balance having as much fun as they could with following all of the rules. I would let the campers enjoy themselves if they were behaving. However, if they were mean to others, were not following directions, or were endangering themselves or the people around them, I would be right on their tail.
Being an authority figure was harder than I had expected. You would think that using a powerful and confident voice would be an effective tool. I learned, however, that if eleven or twelve year-olds do not trust or respect you, then your instruction is useless. They might whisper for five minutes when you ask for quiet, but as soon as they think you are not listening, the voice level amps up quickly. I found the solution was to build bonds with the campers.
By taking the time to have conversations with the campers, I learned how their minds worked. I heard about their lives and their backgrounds. During my two weeks with my cabin, as well as the rest of the junior side, I slowly pieced together the puzzle of each camper’s personality. I recognized why some lashed out, why some tested my limits, and why some refused to trust me at the beginning. All of these connections helped me become a better counselor. I built bonds with many campers and slowly earned their trust and respect.
Being a staff member that the campers looked up to was an incredibly rewarding feeling. It put me on the other side of “the desk” for the first time. Many campers have difficult lives at home and at school. It is fulfilling to know that I was someone whom they could always rely on. It was gratifying that they trusted and confided in me. The experience changed me in a significant way.
Although I loved coming home with amusing stories about how I dislocated my shoulder, cleaned many sleeping bags, put a girl in diapers, and scooped vomit into a bag with my hands, I also came back with bits of my campers lives. Being a role-model to younger girls is not a one-way street. They teach you just as much as you teach them.
On my last day at Brantwood, one of my campers, Bernice, asked me if I was coming back next year. I replied honestly that I was not sure because next summer seemed so far away. “You have to come next year!” she said. “I’ve already grown attached to you.”