1 of 2
Camp at Tuckahoe Family YMCA (Photo courtesy YMCA of Greater Richmond)
2 of 2
Harry Zweckbronner leads counselor training at Camp Hanover (Photo courtesy Camp Hanover)
Until I became a parent myself, and dropped my own kids off at camp for the first time, I didn’t fully understand the awesome responsibility that parents place in us,” says Harry Zweckbronner, program director at Camp Hanover. “And I had hired and trained these counselors myself.” Zweckbronner knows what is involved in finding the right person and providing the support they need to be effective camp counselors. It’s his job, one that he and camp leaders like him take seriously, to hire and train the young people who will be role models, caretakers, supervisors and cheerleaders worthy of a child’s potential and a parent’s trust.
The American Camp Association (ACA) provides guidelines for hiring and developing competent counselors. Pre-employment screening, education requirements, job descriptions and personnel policies, discipline procedures, training recommendations, performance evaluations, diversity requirements and the ratio of campers to staff are all part of the association’s voluntary accreditation program that offers benchmarks for management standards, including staffing. In Virginia, 45 camps have earned the distinction, including about a dozen in the Richmond region.
“ACA accreditation provides parents and the public with evidence that camps have voluntarily met up to 300 health and safety standards through a peer review,” explains Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the association. Accreditation is an objective look at how a camp is managed, and a credible measure of its overall qualifications. Parents can search the ACA database, “Find a Camp,” to locate an accredited camp in Virginia.
Some camps have developed their own hiring and training standards, which typically address preventing sexual harassment or abuse, CPR and first aid training, smoking and substance abuse policies, acceptance standards, guidelines for anger management, conflict resolution protocol, and reference checks, criminal background checks and a check of the national sex offender registry. In Richmond, the Weinstein JCC operates under a set of goals, policies and procedures established by its Lay Leader Camp Committee. The program includes a system of checks and balances to verify that procedures are followed and it includes provisions for addressing policy violations.
The specific abilities that can be evaluated in an interview or taught in development training are referred to as “hard skills,” such as pitching a tent or tying a clove hitch. “Soft skills,” the skills that lead to effective social interactions and harmonious relationships, are subjective attributes and more difficult to quantify. How well does a candidate communicate? Do they have a mastery of team-building and problem-solving skills or an aptitude for conflict resolution? How do you spot a candidate who can counsel a homesick child, persuade an introvert to lead a song or celebrate a home run?
At YMCAs nationwide, the five attributes that hiring mangers look for are called the “YMCA Voice:” staff should be determined, nurturing, genuine, hopeful and welcoming. The organization has created activities designed to help hire a leader who embodies those qualities. “We ask them to sing camp songs or ad lib in a skit depicting a typical camp situation to see how they would perform,” says Jess Jones, senior director of recruitment and staff development at the YMCA of Greater Richmond. “We ask the counselors to come up with a craft that they would do and then to explain how a kid would benefit from that particular experience. Or, we ask them to imagine repopulating the Earth from a list of people we provide. It helps us access their ability to think critically,” he says.
“We also try to match a counselor’s personality and passion with the cognitive and emotional level of the campers they are responsible for. Younger kids are paired with more nurturing counselors, while teens need an energetic, enthusiastic leader, someone who can break through the apathy and engage with them, pull them into the program,” Jones says. “We’re looking for people who can create a sense of belonging for every camper.”
At Camp Hanover, Zweckbronner asks open-ended questions to identify soft skills when he interviews. He quizzes candidates about the role they play when they are part of a team or what they will find challenging in this new position. He asks them to describe a time when they resolved a conflict with a friend or co-worker. Or, what they’ve learned from their experience working with kids. Sometimes he asks them to teach him how to do something.
Once the right hire is made, training begins. Anna Muller, operations director at Westview on the James, oversees a “counselor in training” program there. “It’s a situation where we can groom leadership skills and build on their experience under supervision. It’s very hands on,” she says. Supervised by senior counselors and the operations director, the program is a two-year commitment. Westview on the James also offers an optional Certification Weekend where counselors are checked off on skills training for specific activities (a climbing wall, canoeing or kayaking, for example).
Not optional at Westview is eight days of training, led by staff and outside professionals, which covers topics such as first aid and CPR, sexual harassment prevention, child abuse detection and how to create a safe and inclusive environment for each camper. When camp is in session, staff is observed and evaluated every two weeks, to give them an opportunity to apply what they have learned from feedback. A final evaluation comes at the end of the session. Top performers are invited back the next year, but are required to repeat the same evaluation and training.
At Camp Hanover, Zweckbronner sees staff training as “a time for building community among staff and bonding as well as teaching them how to do their job.” Each of the camp’s unit directors is responsible for three to four small groups of campers, a mix of boys and girls with a male and a female counselor. The group lives, eats and plays together, and their unit director is in constant communication — they drop in and observe, and then meet at night to debrief, brainstorm, give feedback and coach. It’s on-the-job training, but it also lets them know they are not alone. At the end of the week, the unit director shares a comprehensive evaluation.
Good camp counselors have a level head, an even hand and a warm heart. They are comfortable operating outside their comfort zone. They can control a swarm of campers by challenging them to close their eyes and balance on their left foot, or turn a rainy day into a windfall. And they believe that no matter what happens, campers come first.
“I can teach you how to build a fire,” Zweckbronner says. “I can’t teach you how to love kids.”