‘They Were So Cool’

Jennifer Wingrat, her daughter, Rachel, and niece Maya Glass say having fun counselors is key to the camp experience.

She met them nearly 30 years ago, but Jenny Wingrat still remembers her three favorite counselors from good old Camp Wohelo.

Even though Camp Wohelo is no more (the Waynesboro, Pa., property is now Capital Camps), Wingrat will never forget the impact Penny, Beth and Jenny had on her life when she was a camper in the mid-1980s.

“The thing that stands out the most is just how much fun these people were to be around,” the Mount Washington resident says. “One of them was the pioneering counselor, and we did all the outdoorsy stuff with her. And it was a really big deal if you could learn how to light a bonfire with one match. You got to be in the One Match Club. It was such a big deal, something as simple as lighting a bonfire.”

Key to Wingrat’s experience was that the counselors weren’t just going through the motions. They were having as much fun as the kids.

“They were so cool. You wanted to be like them,” says Wingrat.

Ilene Cohen, a former  Camp Wohelo camper, says a favorite counselor helped her to acclimate to bunk life. (Provided)
Ilene Cohen, a former Camp Wohelo camper, says a favorite counselor helped her to acclimate to bunk life.
(David Stuck)

Inner Harbor resident Ilene Cohen was also a camper at Wohelo. She attended from 1967 to 1969, skipped a few years and returned from 1973 to 1975.

“When I went back to camp, it was a rough time,” Cohen recalls. “The other girls’ friendships had strengthened while I was away.” A counselor, Bobbie Berman, helped her reintegrate into camp life. “I really connected with her.”

Wingrat and Berman’s experiences aren’t so unusual. Camp professionals say people are always asking about staffers who have since moved on to other jobs.

“You hear that all the time,” says David Schimmel, director of Beth Tfiloh Camps in Reisterstown. “What ever happened to person X? I loved them.”

Each summer, thousands of young men and women take jobs as counselors in the region’s day and overnight camps.

Although most are still in or barely out of their teens, good camp counselors often have skills way beyond their years.

Campers spend their days making friends, learning about nature and often just doing goofy stuff. All of this is wonderful, but without those special staff members who spend every single day — and night — at overnight camps, doing everything from being substitute parents and role models to soothing homesick campers and mediating spats, the experience wouldn’t be the same.

“It’s very similar to finding that wonderful teacher that you make a connection with,” says Rick Frankle, director of Camp Airy in Thurmont. “It’s somebody who has you as a priority. It’s an intangible trait. They’re willing to spend time with you; they’re willing to listen to you, to offer you advice. It’s that really cool guy who is going to talk to you about things and teach you to shoot a basket to boot.”

Area camps take the responsibility of hiring counselors very seriously. Camp Airy and its sister camp, Camp Louise in Cascade, have a three-year training program for counselors. Young men and women who complete the training are hired right out of high school. Prospective employees who haven’t done the training need a year of college before the camp will consider hiring them.

At Beth Tfiloh, Schimmel looks for staffers who have a sense of fun partnered with a sense of responsibility. Most of BT’s 270 summer staffers are college students, with a strong contingent of teachers and other adults heading up the specialty areas and leadership roles.

Schimmel uses the interview to assess if a candidate who looks good on paper really does have the right stuff for the job. “My feeling always is, if they can have fun in the interview and if they can show maturity in the interview, typically they can carry it over for the summer,” Schimmel says. “If they’re a dud, I don’t want them.”

Obviously, not every camper-counselor match is a good one, and Schimmel admits his own kids have complained about a counselor or two over the years. However, most work out well.

The interview process is also an important prerequisite for Michelle Sugarman, assistant director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos. Ramah hires 200 people every summer, most of whom are alumni of the camp. Three minutes into an interview, her gut will tell her if the applicant has what she’s looking for: “This is going to be a good caregiver,” she says. “This person has good energy.”

Sugarman takes care to chat with applicants to see how they’ll handle common situations, such as cheering up a homesick camper or dealing with kids who are fighting.

In addition to the in-person interview, prospective camp employees generally are fingerprinted, undergo sex offender and background checks and must provide solid references.

After getting used to the freedom of dorm life and living on their own, counselors must be willing to give up some of their independence.

“Living in a room with 13 8-year-olds is a whole different ballgame,” says Frankle.

Camp professionals strongly believe counselor jobs provide young people with life skills they can carry into nearly any profession. Sometimes, however, it’s a battle to get college students to choose color wars and campfires over a summer spent in an air-conditioned corporate cubicle.

“We have some staff who go to Ivy League schools, and they chose to come back to us year in and year out,” says Schimmel. “This is a chance to have an impact on children’s lives as well as to make friends with peers that you can’t make anywhere else.”

“The skills you get as a camp counselor, especially an overnight camp counselor, can train you for whatever you want to do in life,” says Sugarman, who notes that Ramah brings in a career specialist to guide staff on how best to position their counselor experiences on their resumes. “Whet-her you want to be a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher or in marketing, the skills you get being in this 24/7 hands-on environment are better than any internship you can ever get.”

Thanks to Facebook, Cohen still keeps in touch with Berman, who now lives in Germany. Wingrat is also Facebook friends with her favorite Wohelo counselors. And Wingrat’s daughter, Rachael, 16, is the second generation of Wingrat women to feel that powerful connection with a special counselor: She started at Camp Rim Rock in Yellow Springs, W.Va., when she was 6. This season, some of Rachael’s friends are moving on to other summer adventures. But Rachael plans to spend another summer at Rim Rock, where she will be a junior counselor, helping a new group of campers experience a summer of treasured memories.

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