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A summer of growth and gratitude

I got dropped off at Camp Rim Rock for the first time in the summer of 2009. I was nine years old and terrified to spend the month in West Virginia with people I'd never met. But the four weeks flew by, and by the time my parents arrived to pick me up, I had 20 new best friends and never wanted to leave.

That's how it went every summer for the next six years. By the time I was 15, I was too old to be a camper, so I applied for the junior staff program and spent the next two summers as an unpaid junior counselor. The summer that I graduated high school, my friend group of 20 had dropped to the five of us who favored camp over a "real job." By then I was a full counselor. I spent the next two summers as a chorus counselor (which is ironic, because I can't sing).

At the end of last summer, I was asked to be a unit head. (Unit heads are in charge of the whole unit, about 30 kids and 15 counselors). Eager to climb the camp ladder, I said yes without thinking.

Fast forward to this summer, I arrived at camp in early June, so petrified to be a unit head that I threw up from nerves on the drive there.

I had always been the fun, relaxed counselor; the campers' favorite. I always had trouble disciplining them because often they saw me as more of a friend than an authoritative figure.

I didn't think it was possible to be both.

By the time I ended my summer as unit head, eight weeks later, I found out that I was very wrong.

Each summer at camp, I established close connections and bonds with my campers that kept me coming back year after year. As a unit head, I thought that I wouldn't be able to have the same close bonds with them. But instead of being more distant with the kids, I forged even closer connections.

This came easy to me because as a former camper, I could easily put myself in their shoes. I spent hours matching them to their camp "big sisters," so that they would actually like their each other. I fought tirelessly for them in all camp meetings with the directors, and when it came to making last minute calls, I let the kids vote so that they had a voice.

I went above and beyond to meet the camper's individual needs. We'd often have "problem children"- kids that don't listen or respect us and act up. We had one girl who constantly fought with her cabinmates, cursed, and made rude remarks to other campers. She had already been at camp for a month when she was moved to my unit, and the directors had no faith that I'd be the one to change her behavior. It didn't take me long to realize that she had anger issues and anxiety, and rarely thought before she spoke.

On the first day that she was in my unit, I gave her a physical list of what to do when she felt angry at other campers. From then on, whenever she'd get mad, she would calmly walk out of her cabin and come find me, to chat, breathe, or make bracelets using my secret stash of letter beads. I prided myself on establishing trust with her and showing my directors that I could handle the hard parts of the job. She trusted me so much that she confided in me about her difficult home life and her recent adoption. As a sociology and journalism major, I found myself wanting to dig deeper into her history and uncover just what exactly led her to form her behavior patterns and coping mechanisms.

I had to remind myself many times that it wasn't my job to find the source of their problems, but instead to change their behavior to match our camp's expectations.

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I met so many kids who didn't have great home lives, who would cry to me at night because of a nasty divorce going on at home, a terminal illness in the family, or parents who wouldn't write them. I wanted nothing more than to take them home with me and give them the support and attention they deserved. At camp, I feel like a mother, or a big sister. But really, I'm just a 20-year-old who loves kids.

Every camper that moved into one of my cabins got my full heart, and when their parents came to pick them up, I felt like I'd lost one of my kids. I patiently wait until the day they're not campers anymore, so I can give them my number and keep in touch. Until then, I have many pen-pals, and each time I get a letter in the mail I'm reminded of how important my unspoken promise to them was. I promised myself that I would always be there for these kids, whether at camp or at school, because they have impacted my life so greatly.

Next summer, I'll be the only one of my original group of friends to come back to camp. Everyone else is shocked that I still go there, but for me, it's as real of a job as any. I'm learning skills that I could never learn in an office.

I learned how to manage a team of counselors. I learned how to schedule 20 counselors at a time and solve scheduling conflicts. I learned how to make 30 kids happy at the same time. I learned how to solve fights between ten year olds and how to make urgent walkie talkie calls when a kid falls off a horse.

Even though the summer is now over, I still have pieces of camp with me. Scattered throughout my room are remnants of my summer: notes in my desk drawer from campers, polaroids of birthday cake and dance parties, and a painting of a sunset over a river that one of my favorite campers made me.