Who is taking care of my kids?

Geoff Davies, a former camp counsellor, looks into the mindset and training of camp staff

Camp has come and gone. The duffle bags are packed and stacked beside the dining hall, and the buses will be leaving soon. The first parents are pulling through the gates. And here you are, a counsellor, barely out of your teens, and you’ve built this beautiful thing: a cabin group, a community of kids who were strangers just weeks before.

    Summer camps across the country—whether they’re day camps, sports camps, tripping camps, or traditional camps—make a pledge to parents: that their children are going to be safe and happy, socially secure and challenged by new skills and experiences.

    “If you’re a first-time parent you’ve heard all this stuff and you’re just not sure if you believe it,” says Andy Gruppe, general manager of YMCA Camp Wanakita in Haliburton, Ontario.

    But disbelief is dispelled when they learn about the weeks and years of preparation that went into earning that parent’s trust. Well before the first camper arrives, it’s common for camp staff to undergo extensive training in all the legal, procedural, medical and behavioural know-how that goes into a safe and successful camp season.

    Wanakita staff members are trained over 10 days on topics ranging from risk management, group dynamics and programming skills to workplace safety and YMCA protocols. But with 90 per cent of their staff coming up through Wanakita’s leadership programs—also known as counsellor-in-training—the preparation begins years earlier. Though surprising to some, the depth and breadth of this training is crucial, says Gruppe: “When they’re at camp they have to be everything.”

    It’s no different at day camps, says Howie Grossinger, a director and co-owner of Camp Robin Hood in Markham, Ontario. “Any camp staff is as good as the training and support you provide them,” he says.

    Parenting and camping have evolved hand-in-hand in recent years, he says, making it all the more important for accrediting bodies to provide a consistent standard.

    Every Canadian province has its own camping association to set industry standards. These all fall under the umbrella of the Canadian Camping Association, which represents more than 800 camps nationwide.

    “As a parent, the knowledge that standards exist and I’m not just taking a bow and an arrow and putting it in the hands of somebody who hasn’t had any training … should provide some immediate comfort,” Grossinger says.

    Grossinger has been working in camping since 1986, and thankfully there are people like him to worry about regulations, legislation and oversight. That way people like 19-year-old Aidan McNally can take care of the campers’ most immediate priority: fun. It’s what keeps counsellors like her coming back.

    “You just get enjoyment from seeing your kids have fun,” says McNally, just out of her second summer counselling at Camp Ouareau in the Laurentian Mountains in Quebec . “These are kids you care about, these are kids you see every single day, you put to bed, you want them to have a good time.

    “You know you’re doing a good job when your kids are smiling.” 

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