Each campfire burns anew

Traditionally, Camp Thunderbird for Boys hosts an annual dodgeball game between the campers and counselors. For four summers, Bryan Kurtzman ’08 was an enthusiastic member of the camper team. Last summer though, Kurtzman found himself on the other side of the line and learned that for the counselors, the dodgeball game took on an entirely new significance.

The game is a healthy, therapeutic, and lighthearted way to let out built up frustration with the campers, Kurtzman said.

Kurtzman has spent four summers in Bemidji, Minn. as a camper at Thunderbird. The camp is dedicated to creating a second home for campers and counselors alike, according to the camp website.

Although Kurtzman has learned outdoor skills such as pitching a tent and building a fire, the lessons he values most are those relating to building friendships and creating family bonds.

“You learn a sense of how you should treat people and how they should treat you,” said Kurtzman.  “It’s a core value system that you can carry with you.  [Friendship building] is something that is applicable anywhere.”

Jordan Bender ’08 has attended Camp Greylock in Becket, Mass. for 10 years. He is now entering his third summer as a counselor. For Bender, the camp experience has taught him independence and responsibility.  

“I would like to think that I use what I have learned from camp in my everyday life because I strive to be a leader in what I do and use my experiences from camp to help me,” Bender said.

The decision to return to camp this summer did not require much deliberation for Kurtzman or Bender.

“If you’re ever a camp counselor, you don’t do it for the money. You do it for the experience,” said Kurtzman. Wages earned by camp counselors are notoriously low, Kurtzman said.  He was paid $700 for one month of work at Thunderbird.

Bender, given the opportunity, would prefer to return each summer as a camper rather than as a counselor. The fact that the camp never changes from summer to summer creates a nice contrast to the hectic Harvard-Westlake life, Kurtzman said.

There are few jobs that list enthusiasm as a top priority in the job description, but to be a camp counselor at Thunderbird or Greylock, enthusiasm is a main component. Thunderbird specifically looks for staff members who have “high energy, are down-to-earth and know how to have fun,” according to the camp website.

Caitlin Cunningham ’09, who has spent six summers in Freedom, New Hampshire at YMCA Camp Nellie Huckins, was initially challenged by the transition from camper to counselor.

“As a camper, you are primarily concerned about yourself, meaning that you really only have to worry about the well being of yourself,” Cunningham said.  “As a counselor, you need to forget about your own needs and direct all your attention to the camper.”

Gabe Chernov, a member of the American Camp Association and the director of Camp Birch Trail in Minong, Wis., attributes the commonly difficult transition to camps’ focus on the campers.  After accepting their new role in the camp environment, the Junior Counselors are able to provide their campers with memorable experiences similar to their own, said Chernov.
Junior Counselors at Birch Trail are a critical part of the staff, Chernov said.

“They are always the favorite counselors and I think that makes sense as they have been in the camper’s position before and understand what they are going through,” Chernov said.  “Because of their history at camp, Junior Counselors have a great understanding and knowledge of all the traditions of camp and this allows them to be the ‘caretakers’ of camp stories, legends and traditions.”

The process of becoming a camp counselor depends on the individual camp. For example, at Birch Trail, old campers are invited back and are sent a counselor application.  After reviewing the applications, the administration conducts phone interviews with prospective Junior Counselors. This year, because of the large number of applicants, the final decision was based on a lottery. 

Although applicant Kate Liebman ’09 was deemed eligible to be a counselor, her name was not picked in the lottery and so she will not be returning for her seventh summer.

At Camp Nellie Huckins, the process of choosing counselors is very selective, according to Cunningham. The summer before her sophomore year, Cunningham and the rest of her age division were evaluated by their counselors. Having been determined “counselor material,” Cunningham received an invitation to return as a Counselor in Training.  As a CIT, Cunningham was evaluated again, and the following fall she received a letter accepting her as a fulltime counselor.

For Cunningham, the most rewarding camp experience has been carrying on traditions. She remembered being taught to water-ski by her counselor as a first year camper.

“This summer, I taught many girls how to water-ski that were my age when I learned. That feeling of ‘completing a circle’ is really neat,” Cunningham said.