Following the leader:

Roles that move teens beyond ‘camper’

By Julia Moore

Does your teen have fond memories of summer camp, but feels too old to be a camper? If your teen isn’t reaching her true potential in another year of camp, she may be ready to step into a leadership position. Becoming a camp counselor is a great option for camp-loving teens who are interested in working with younger campers, gaining leadership experience, and learning important life skills – all while having fun.

A new kind of camper

Camps of all varieties fill their staff with teenagers who provide fun and camaraderie with young campers. Some camps will even hire at age 16 for leadership development positions, like “Counselor-in-Training” (CIT) or “Leader-in-Training” (LIT). The CITs or LITs begin by shadowing camp counselors. When they’re ready, the leaders are given responsibilities that mirror staff duties, from facilitating activities to taking younger campers for a bathroom break. Camp leaders may be given more challenges and are held to higher standards, but they’re still campers; they must pay the camper fees – although sometimes fees are reduced – and they must follow rules set for normal campers. If your kid is interested in a specialty camp that doesn’t hold CIT or LIT positions, ask about internship possibilities or different, elevated camper positions.

Have fun while making the fun

What qualities are ideal in a camp leadership role? “First and foremost, energy,” says Nicole Lebo, director of program services at Camp Fire Alaska. Prepare teens to be unplugged, out of their rooms, and engaging with young campers. Camp leaders have to be eager and look at challenges in a positive light. Instead of practicing a skill they have mastered, camp leaders create fun, new activities to bring their skills, and young campers’ skills, to the next level.

One side of being an LIT is enthusiasm and engagement, but the other is reflection and patience. “Often, the other kids will see you as closer to their age, so in a lot of ways they have more respect for you than the counselors, because they connect with you better,” Vazi, an LIT at Camp Fire last summer, explains. When your teen enters camp as a leader, they learn that modeling appropriate behavior – active listening and participation – encourages other campers to do the same. Don’t let the appearance of harder work fool you! Camp leaders still have a blast, says Vazi, “You get to have fun and make the fun.”

Break beyond routine, and dive into self-discovery

Teens who have grown up going to camp know the routine – they’ve done the activities, and they’re ready for a challenge. As a CIT or LIT at camp, teens are put into a new situation leading others, whether they know the solution or they’re working towards it with a team. They learn to work independently, interact with a diverse group, and understand effective (and ineffective) ways to lead. As they experience this new level of responsibility, they journey into self-discovery.

“One thing that the camp environment offers is the freedom to be you and not have any judgment from anybody else. (It’s) the counselors and the LITs that create that environment,” says Shaun, who was an LIT at Camp Fire last summer.

And while these counselors are helping younger campers explore and build self-esteem, they too are reaping rewards that can last a lifetime. Leadership training in camp helps develop young leaders for the future. What they are gaining – confidence, team-building skills, the willingness to try new things, and positive values – are all attributes future leaders will need. It’s a win-win for everyone.