Duty Calls, for Summer Camp Staff

Staff learn to take having fun seriously


All's quiet when Kate Tremblett begins her morning in the kitchen at Camp Kawartha. But by 8 a.m., the dining hall is teeming with noisy kids — just the way she likes it.

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Working behind the scenes at a camp, whether cooking the food, maintaining the facilities or counselling the campers, takes dedication and a love of kids.

Tremblett has been head cook for seven years at Camp Kawartha, north of Peterborough, Ontario. Asked about the difference between working in a summer camp and a restaurant, she laughs.

"There's a lot more mouths to feed here. And because the kids are running around using so much energy, they are that much hungrier. We always say we're feeding a bunch of piranhas," she says. "But it's great because they are so appreciative. And it's all home-cooked meals, so we don't have a lot of the processed foods."

Campers' varied diets create an additional challenge.

"We have kids who need gluten-free meals and kids with allergies to peanuts, even fruit allergies."

Every day, Tremblett and her staff prepare enough food for a small army, but she's used to working with enormous quantities. Breakfast includes oatmeal, yogurt, cantaloupe and honeydew melon with peaches on the side, as well as cereal, pancakes, bacon and fresh juice. "For the macaroni-and-cheese lunch,"she says, "we use a 10-pound package of macaroni elbows and 15 pounds of cheese.

"We also cook a hundred cookies a day. It's mass production. But what makes it worth it is the smile on the kids' faces."

Once campers have been fed, it's up to the counsellors and staff to organize activities and be there for each camper's individual needs. This isn't nine to five; it's a lifestyle.

Like all the staff at Camp Kawartha, Adam Strasberg goes by a nickname: his is "Wham." An elementary school teacher in Toronto, he has been seduced by the surroundings, so much so he will be staying at the camp through the fall. He's the camp's Leadership in Training director, and counts himself lucky to be working in a job he loves.

"I run an intensive program for 16- and 17-year-olds teaching the kids how to become good leaders in anything they do, whether it's in school or camp or a job," he says, "but also, we're looking to hire these people for the summer. So, it's training for working at this camp."

It's the kids that make the difference, he says, but adds that counsellors also can make a difference in the life of a camper. "Camp shapes you for the rest of your life. The misnomer is that if you're learning you can't have fun. I think schools should lighten up a bit, and take a lesson from camp. Kids learn a lot here. They're not learning eight plus eight, but they're learning."

When asked about the long hours, he smiles. "It's your life. There's no difference here between work or play. But what's nice about camp, compared to any other job, is that your work and social life mesh. Basically, you are going from first thing in the morning until late at night."

In the mornings, staff and campers are in a "health hustle" or enjoying a polar bear swim by 7:30. The counsellor of the day is responsible for ringing the morning bell and leading the group in a game such as tag. "Something to get the blood flowing," Strasberg says.

"We then have a meeting after breakfast," he says. "It doesn't matter whether you are senior staff or first year, but everyone gets a chance to say something. Of all the camps I've been to," he says, "there's really no egos here. Everyone has a job to do and everyone respects that."

Jude Holliwell, also known as "Pooch," was a camper for four years and is now a staff member. Having come through the training process, she's seen first-hand what it means to be a counsellor. "You see a change in the kids," she says. "When they come here, they can be themselves."

At the end of the day, staff are as exhausted as the campers.

"There's not a lot of time to relax," Holliwell says. "But when the campers are sleeping, it's nice to have some quiet." One staff activity is the "warm fuzzy," where candles are lit and people write complimentary notes about each other, stuff them in a pitcher, then randomly select them and read them aloud. "It makes people feel good," Strasberg says. After a long day of looking after the needs of campers, staff have to know there's something for them at the end of the day.

"And it's important that staff all get along," he says. "That's why there is a week of pre-camp, which centres on people getting to know each other."

Staff at Camp Kawartha participate in role-playing situations that involve campers. It's one of many pre-camp staff training programs put on by camps.

"There might be a scenario where one camper is making fun of another because he's not so good at sports," Strasberg says "The counsellor will have to figure out how to deal with the situation. And not just the end result but how it was handled, as well."

During pre-camp, Camp Kawartha staff also update their first-aid skills and learn to deal with possibly unpleasant situations "like an eating disorder," Strasberg says. "You have to look for the kids who are not eating at mealtime."

It's challenging work but for these staffers it's gratifying to see the impact they have on kids at camp.

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