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Take Care

Michal Eisikowitz

Will sleepaway camp be a fond memory your child holds dearly — or an awful experience she regrets for decades? Your child’s counselor shoulders much of the responsibility for how her summer turns out. What camps are doing to ensure counselors understand — and are prepared for — their vital role.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

“I was not fit to be a counselor,” says Elisheva, now a mother of seven children. “It sounds horrible, but in retrospect, I’d never want my child to be cared for by the 16-year-old that I was.” Sleepaway camp offers children a welcome respite from the rigors of school and a sometimes-rare chance to shine in a nonacademic setting. But the setup has its snags: Parents entrust their most precious assets to often inexperienced adolescents who mean well, but may not have the maturity and skills required for safe, effective nurturing. “My friends and I were deep in social stress, resolving identity crises — it was the most self-centered stage of our lives,” Elisheva recalls. “And then we became responsible for ten impressionable nine-year-olds for two months! We were too busy making sure our campers thought we were ‘cool’ to actually focus on giving them a great summer.” Every child — even the most emotionally healthy one — requires enormous doses of patience, tolerance, and attention. What’s more, when a child leaves for camp, he doesn’t leave his problems behind — and the ramifications of a mismanaged issue can be tragic. Are today’s counselors qualified? “In camp, an 18-year-old is taking care of 12 kids 24 hours a day with different backgrounds, personalities, needs — there’s no parent in the world like that!” remarks Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald, veteran director of Camp Sternberg, now celebrating its jubilee year. Happily, more and more camps are prepping counselors for the job: impressing upon them the importance of the role, transmitting critical counseloring principles, and offering extensive senior staff support. In Camp Agudah, for example, in addition to a thorough pre-camp training, counselors attend weekly workshops where they meet division heads and discuss challenging real-time situations. “We feel strongly about presenting realistic, common scenarios and giving over the right and wrong ways to deal with them,” saysRabbiAvrahamNeiman, Agudah’s head counselor. Camp Sternberg has gone further: For years, they’ve hired two on-site seasoned social workers who meet regularly with counselors to offer sound direction, but operate somewhat incognito with the younger bunch. Most campers know them as the “nice ladies who take me for a walk and make me feel better.” At Camp Sternberg’s full-day orientation, every staff member must be present. “We offer tools for the most typical problems, but we strongly encourage counselors to seek guidance when they’re not sure,” saysRabbiGreenwald. “The hierarchy of who to ask is made clear.” Most recently, Mrs. Debbie Fox, LCSW — creator of the now well-known Safety Kid program — streamlined this training task by developing Project SafeCamp, an interactive video training series in which eight professionals (the experts quoted throughout this article) offer presentations on topics like “counseloring 101,” bullying prevention, and personal safety. In the year since the program’s inception, 16 camps have registered and over 2,000 counselors have been trained, numbers that underscore the increased demand for comprehensive counselor preparation. “There is no place like camp,”Debbie says. “But without adequate staff training, the potential for mishandled situations is high.”

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