We caught up with Gabor, who’s our office flights guru to find out all about being a special needs counselor at summer camp. Gabor spent 5 summers with the League at Camp Greentop, which is one of our SEN summer camps based in Maryland.
What was your job role at camp?
I did something different each year. In my first year I was working in the kitchen as a support staff, second year I was a day and travel camp counselor (basically got to go on a 5 day trip to NYC, Hershey Park and look after the campers there), third year I was a WEA coach (This is where people with not so severe disabilities come to work at camp and I was supervising them, giving them different jobs etc). The fourth and fifth year I was assistant director of programming.
What did you do?
I did all sort of jobs at camp. Basically, as a counselor you are looking after the kids, taking them to different activities, helping them at meal times.
As an assistant director, I was in charge of the programming for the summer, I worked closely with program leaders establishing a very high level of programs. I also had to organise 3 trips a day throughout our adult sessions.
What did a day look like? Can you talk us through a timetable?
On an average day the wake up bell goes off at 7.30am. Campers have 1 hour to get ready and make their way to the flag pole. Here we sing a chant and tell a joke. We then have breakfast with announcements which will talk about the different activities for the day. There are 3 morning activities before lunch.
Lunch is followed by 1.5 rest “hour” and the afternoon programs kick off at 3pm. There are also 3 activities followed by dinner and evening program.
The activities included Arts and Crafts, Nature, Pool, Horse Riding, Performing Arts and Sports and Games.
"Being a special needs counselor is the hardest but most rewarding job. You will learn so much about yourself and the campers!"
What was a high point for you?
There were many high points over the years but probably seeing my favourite camper year after year was always something that kept me going back to camp! Also seeing two of the residents get engaged during an evening program was also very special.
Can you think of a low point? How did you get through it?
Low points will come no matter what. Camp is very tiring both mentally and physically. I can remember one of my low points that happened 5 weeks into my first summer. The monotony of peeling vegetables in the support staff role definitely got to me and I just wanted to participate in all the programs with the kids. What kept me going was that I already knew that I was going to return to be a counselor the next summer.
What advice would you give to someone else going to a special needs camp?
People will also go through the same experiences, thoughts and feelings as you, so you just need to make sure that you talk to someone. When you are tired both mentally and physically, everything looks a lot worse than it actually is. At the end, when looking back on your summer, those moments fade away. The bond you will have with your campers will give you so much positive energy, it is unbelievable.
What did you need to pack?
I always ended up packing a lot more than I actually needed. All you need is 4 pair of shorts and 5 T-shirts that you don’t mind getting ruined by sunscreen and general wear and tear. Get comfortable shoes, or just order a pair of chacos when you are at camp! THEY ARE THE BEST! A water bottle is also very useful. You can get everything at Wal-Mart for a good price and just get rid of them at the end of the summer. I also packed a nice outfit for the staff banquet but that is literally it.
Why would you recommend being a special needs counselor to someone else?
Being a special needs counselor is the hardest but most rewarding job. You will learn so much about yourself and the campers! As an assistant director, being able to plan out the activities for them, seeing how happy they are with your activity is definitely something that puts you in a good mood!
Do you have a top memory with a camper?
I was looking after Max, who was 8 years old at that time. He could never remember my name, so I just got used to it as the summer went by. I didn’t go back for a year, but 2 years later when I returned, at check-in he jumped out of his parent's car shouting my name while running towards me. That was a very very special moment for me.
" I went for 5 summers in total and if I had the opportunity, I would be on the plane right now!"
What surprised you? Was it different to your expectations?
I was told that camp would be very rustic and was in a remote place. At first, I was really worried about this as I couldn’t imagine not having all my home comforts; but not being able to have my phone or go out whenever I wanted were the best things about camp! It forms such a close community and people spend such quality time with each other, which now, in this day and age, seems very rare.
How much did you get paid?
Working as a support staff I got paid around $2000 for my first summer, then as a returner, this went up. Generally speaking, as a counselor, you would earn around $1000-1200 in your first summer.
What were the hours like?
I usually got up at 6, go for a run and the day would start around 8:00. I didn’t finish normally until 9-10pm. I had lots of smaller breaks during the day of course.
What did you do in your time off?
In my camp we got a night off per session, where would get dropped off at the closest city (restaurants, cinema and stores nearby). Your night off would start at 7:00pm and then you’d get picked up at 11pm, unless you have your own car / or wanna take a cab back. You just have to be back on the premises by 7am. Between sessions, we would get 2.5 days off where you can rent out camp’s vehicles and go on trips. We went to Baltimore, Ocean City, Washington and to New York during these breaks.
How good do you need to be? What would you say is the minimum skill level needed?
Depends on what positions you are interested in. Generally speaking, as a counselor, you would need some experience with working with people with special needs. If you want to be a program leader, you would need to have lots of relevant experience. Special needs camp look for people who have a passion to help others!
How many campers were at camp?
My camp was fairly small, we had a total of 86 staff, of which 55 were international, and a total number of 65 campers if we were fully booked.
Where did you go travelling?
I did a fair amount of travelling after camp. I went to Las Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, got the chance to visit Hawaii, travel around Texas and some hidden places along the way!
Would you or did you go again?
Yes! and I did go back. I went for 5 summers in total and if I had the opportunity, I would be on the plane right now!
Think this is something you’d enjoy? Then take the opportunity work at one of our Special Needs camps. We can vouch it’s an incredibly rewarding experience, one we’re very proud to offer. Do something amazing and have the summer of a lifetime.