Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Confessions of a Camp Counselor

"A camp counselor is a rare combination of doctor, lawyer, Indian, and chief. She is a competent child psychologist with her sophomore textbook as proof. She is an underpaid babysitter with neither television nor refrigerator. She is a strict disciplinarian with a twinkle in her eye, a minister of and to all faiths with questions about her own. She is a referee, coach, teacher, and advisor. She is the example of womanhood in worn-out tennis shoes, a sweatshirt two sizes too large, and a hat that sits haphazardly on her head. She is a humorist in a crisis, a doctor in an emergency, a song leader, entertainer, and play director. She is an idol with her head in a cloud of wood smoke and her feet in the mud. She is a comforter in a leaky tent on a cold night and a pal who has just loaned someone her last pair of dry socks. She is a teacher of the out-of-doors, knee-deep in poison oak."
-"Who is a Camp Counselor?" from the Girl Scout Staff Program Guide

It was only Wednesday, halfway through the week. We'd been training from 8am to 11pm every day with hardly any breaks in between. Aching from sleep deprivation, some of us were on the brink of murder. This, my dear friends, was staff training. Training for what you may ask? Being a counselor at a Girl Scout Camp in Park City, Utah. 

If this is how day 3 felt, I wondered, how on earth was I going to survive caring for and leading young girls for the remaining 9 weeks of summer? It'd be pure torture and just as I was imagining my gravestone a girl beside me asked one of the camp directors, who'd been there for 13 years now, why she kept coming back. Great question, I thought, leaning in, intrigued by what the answer might be. "Uh," the director laughed, looking to the floor for answers, "it's probably because I get campnesia."

And suddenly it clicked. Campnesia. Of course, this is what happens to each of us who return to camp year after year and then wonder why. It's kind of like when a mother goes into labor for the second time, completely forgetting how painful the delivery of her first child felt, so she vouches to never give birth again, but hold up, once the child is out clinging to her index finger with its tiny little hand her ovaries quiver and like that her memory is wiped. 

That's why babies are dangerous. 
So is camp. 

Me with a fellow counselor and our teen campers. 
I'd like to write a book one day about my crazy and wondrous camp experiences and this is how I'd introduce it--by discussing the mysterious workings of campnesia, because truth is: camp is hard. It's probably one of the hardest jobs out there and it's incredibly underpaid, but something obviously keeps bringing us back. 

Last year, around this time (some of you may remember) I volunteered two weeks of my summer at Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp, a camp for children and adults with varying abilities. Those two weeks were probably some of the toughest I ever endured (following my back surgeries). They left me emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted. They also challenged me spiritually, making me contemplate the complexities of God and human suffering. 

You can read about my thoughts on Kiwanis Camp here: 
  1. Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp: First Impressions
  2. Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp Part 2
Horsing around at Kiwanis Camp. 
Honestly, I thought last year would be my last summer as a counselor, but by the time December rolled around I had this really strong urge to work at camp again, specifically a Girl Scout Camp, preferably in Utah, and for the whole summer this time, which never once occurred to me might be a terrible idea in terms of my spine. 

Truth is: I have a crappy spine. Over the course of 5 years I endured one cortisone shot, 5 facet joint injections, and 2 major surgeries. Simple things like standing in a grocery store for too long causes me pain, pain that is best described as a serrated knife plunged deep between my lower vertebras, however, for some reason the fact that camp may or may not destroy me physically never occurred as I filled out a job application or even during a chiropractor's appointment just days before camp. I thought I'd be perfectly fine.

Denial is a powerful thing.

17-year-old me in the hospital with my momma. 
During staff training we wrote a letter to our future-selves about why we were there. We read it during the fifth week of camp when we were predicted to be burnt out and unmotivated. I wrote about how I wanted to take what I poured my heart and soul into The Be Ok Blog and share it with these young impressionable girls, awesome stuff like writing gratitude letters, jotting down at least one positive thing that happened each day in one's journal, picking up trash even if it's not yours, affirming positive things about yourself and others, etc.

Basically I wanted to teach them everything that the Girl Scouts stand for.

Mission Statement: Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence, and character who make the world a better place. 

Girl Scout Promise: 
On my honor, I will try:
To serve God and my country, 
To help people at all times, 
And to live by the Girl Scout Law. 

Girl Scout Law:
I will do my best to be
honest and fair, 
friend and helpful, 
considerate and caring, 
courageous and strong, and
responsible for what I say and do, 
and to 
respect myself and others,
respect authority, 
use resources wisely, 
make the world a better place, and 
be a sister to every Girl Scout. 
Little Brownie Amanda.

I felt chagrinned as I explained to my chiropractor all the things I did at camp and how my body currently felt, I had basically undone all the things he adjusted back in June. The adjustments performed were quite painful, but I know from experience that these temporarily painful adjustments will help out in the long term.

He was frustrated. I was frustrated. And this frustration almost made me feel guilty for even considering camp because, physically speaking, I shouldn't have gone.

But I desperately wanted to go hiking, canoeing, smell the unpolluted mountain air, bundle up in a sleeping bag every night, star gaze, watch the dancing flames of a bonfire, act silly and not look weird for it, sing camp songs, empower young women, make new friends, update my CPR and First Aid training, and yeah getting paid for that is nice too. 

So even though I'm currently in pain and still recovering from my seven weeks of camp I have to tell you that it was well worth it. 

Why?
Well, I'm an adventurer and story teller and let me tell you camp leaves you with loads of adventures worth sharing. I'm also a humorist. I find comedy in even the most crappiest moments in life such as back surgeries or bed bugs in a Roman hostel.

Camp is best summed up in moments: hard and great ones.

And today, I'd like to share those top twenty moments with you.
  1. Teaching my 4th and 5th graders about the Bystander Effect, after reading "My Secret Bully" which is a book I strongly recommend to everyone with or working with children.
    Enjoying some beautiful cocoa after a hailstorm. 
  2. Desperately trying to fall asleep while swinging in my hammock during--what felt like--50 mph winds. Even though my back was in severe pain I enjoyed watching the Aspen leaves and branches above sway back and forth.
    Dimples and I hanging out.
  3. In the middle of the night, a teen camper came to our tent asking for a cough drop.
    Camper: What time is it?
    Counselor: One thirty.
    Camper: In the morning or the afternoon?
    Counselor: Uh...?
    I let children slather mud and leaves on my face. 
  4. A little 8-year-old came into the health room and in a very high pitched voice said: "My Dad's name is James Arthur McConaughey, nickname JAM, so I made a song after him. JAM JAM JAM JAM I want to eat him!"

  5. During the overnight with seven 4th and 5th graders I was asked by one of the girls what I wanted to do for my profession.
    Me: A writer. I like writing books and wanna write film scripts too.
    Camper: What kind of movies do you want to make?
    Me: (Since there were other counselors looking on I jokingly said) Well, I've got an idea about this teen named Peter Parker who has special powers.
    Camper: Oooh, tell us about it!

    I, no joke, told them the entire Spider-Man movie (Toby McGuire version) scene-for-scene, quoted everything, said who'd I'd hire to play the roles, compose the score, and how I'd shoot everything. It was hilarious! Honestly, I just kept going till someone stopped me, but the counselors enjoyed it just as much. The kids thought I was making it all up on the spot. I spoke for 2 hours.

    Camper: That sounds amazing!
    Me: You'll see it on Netflix one day. Trust me.

  6. The Lifeguard's called themselves the Lord's of Guards Town. We discussed making a documentary about their day-to-day life at camp, maybe even propose the idea to TLC.

  7. Every morning I dreaded waking up, it was always too dang early, sleep deprivation hurt like a mo-fo, and my sleeping bag was too cozy, but each morning I was pleasantly met with an incredible sunrise over the mountain tops that seemed to say: "You've got this!"

  8. Campers: Salamanders what's your real name?
    Me: Sally Anders.
    Campers: Oh that makes sense.
    My face after an all-nighter. I'm wearing a zebra onesie and a rainbow tutu. 
  9. One night a fellow counselor and I desperately wanted to go to bed and just as we were about to do so 2 campers stepped out of their cabin, admitting to being homesick. Internally sighing, we sat them both down on a bench outside their cabin and gazed up at the stars. The other counselor shared stories about the constellations while I spoke about making the best out of the short amount of time we had here at camp. And as we were gazing up at the night sky we saw a shooting star. All four of us were in awe and the girls told us that was the first shooting star they've ever seen in their life. It wiped away all traces of homesickness. It was a magical moment, indeed, and it wouldn't have happened had we gone to bed early.
    Hiking with the Brownies. 
  10. One day we had to quickly rush the girls off the lake and squeeze into the boathouse due to a violent hailstorm with thunder and lightning. It was then I shared stories about getting pooped on by a hippo, almost getting struck by lightning, my narcoleptic horse, my bloated fish who needed special fish TUMS, etc. It's something I'll never forget, being cramped in that boathouse, making both campers and counselors laugh hysterically. These story telling opportunities happened frequently, the laughter evoked is addicting and makes me want to take a crack at stand-up or simply share a story of mine on The Moth Stage.
    Serenading the crowd at campfire. 
  11. I neighed like a horse for the girls. (I don't know if you know this, but I'm like a pro-neigher.)
    Me: That's my mating call.
    Teen Campers laughing hysterically. 
  12. Counselor speaking to a girl whose bracelet strings were knotting together at the ends, but I didn't see this.
    Counselor: Your bottom is tangly.
    *Silence*
    Me: What? Is that like code for wedgie or something?

  13. Me: I'll be back, I need to get a heating pad for my back.
    6-year-old Camper: Yeah, I need one for my face.
    My favorite place on camp: Lake Brimhall. 
  14. Stepping in a steaming hot pile of moose poop and then looking up to see the actual moose.
    Admire the view, ignore the butt-crack. 
    Counselor: If the zombie apocalypse starts in Vegas does it stay in Vegas?

  15. So, there was this huge Jack Rabbit that would scurry all over campus and apparently his name was Kevin. During campfire one night he ran across the field and 100 Girl Scouts screamed: "KEVIN!"

  16. During another overnight (this is when all the good stuff happens) a teen camper came up to me, admitting she had to go to the Biffy (Bathroom in forrest for you), we hadn't dug the hole yet for pooping, so I asked: Number 1 or number 2?
    Bouncing on her toes, she hesitated to answer, but I already knew she had major code brown by the look on her face.
    I had her grab a buddy and we took off into the woods with a shovel. Normally we get a good-sized shovel, but this time we received a pathetic gardening shovel that sadly took quite a bit of time to dig through the tough ground. As her buddy took forever to dig, her bouncing intensified and she made this hissing sound.
    Me: You gonna be ok?
    Her: No. It's gonna come out.
    Me: (pointing at her buddy) Well, you better hurry. (And then sadly I started to giggle.) Don't worry one day we'll laugh about all this.
    Both of them: Why? It's not funny!
    Me: In the future we will.
    Both of them: This will NEVER be funny.
    Me: Fine. Then I'll just laugh about this later.

    We finally got the hole dug and the girl came up to me after pooping.
    Her: (embarrassed) Uh, Salamanders, it was a lot. I don't want anyone to see.
    Me: That's ok. That's what the Biffy's for... pooping!
    Her: I know, but...
    Me: It's honestly nothing to be ashamed about. Everyone poops! There's even a children's book about it. And don't let Kim Jong-Il fool you cuz he pooped too.
    This made her laugh. 


  17. Me: Was the Polar Bear dip cold?
    10-year-old Camper: Are you kidding me? I can't feel my toes!

  18. Listening to the rain pummel our tents, to the thunder roar, and watching the lightning light up the mountains.
    I was actually in a lot of pain when I took this photo. 
  19. Late at night a bunch of counselors and I were writing letters to families when...
    Counselor A:
    Did you hear that? Sounded like someone crying.
    *Counselor looks outside, sees no one. We hear rustling.*
    Counselor B: I think it's a cougar cuz they make crying baby sounds.
    Me: The only cougar I want to see on camp is a middle-aged woman.
    Campers watching the sunrise.
These found memories are like a child grasping your finger, making your ovaries quiver, and wiping your memory clean of any pain. Camp is a lot like parenting I feel like. It's really tough work, but the rewards are great. I'm thankful for my time at camp, for the lessons I've learned, for the great quotes I've gathered, and the relationships I've formed. When I look back on these moments I'll remember what I accomplished rather than my limitations or the pain I suffered, so in that regard maybe campnesia isn't such a bad thing after all. 

Blog to you later!
Love,
Manders 

P.S:
If any of my fellow counselors are reading this I just want to say: "Thank you for making my summer so great! I love all of you!" 

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