How Jewish Summer Camp Prepared Me for Adulthood
I was only 17-years old when I began my job being a camp counselor at URJ Goldman Union Family Camp (GUCI), a Reform Jewish summer camp in Zionsville, IN. Fortunately, I was beginning this job in a well-established training program at a camp I fully adored.
My first staff training was filled with so much information to absorb: learning about developmental milestones, communication skills, conflict resolution, incorporation of spirituality. The trainings seamlessly wove into the day-to-day of camp; we learned about counseling skills and then practiced them with our new campers. Throughout the weeks, we processed, both together and individually, the challenges and concerns we met daily. All the while, we were encouraged to explore the discomforts and limitations we were facing and to identify our successes. As a staff, we were safely nurtured as we moved through disappointments and positive experiences.
I built alliances with those campers and colleagues on staff. I loved what we were doing so much that I kept doing it year after year, developing and practicing these skills each summer. Even though I found myself in a variety of camp communities, I began to integrate the ways of camp with the way I lived my life. The values and expectations we created at camp became second nature to how I interacted in the world and, ultimately, how I practiced professionally.
For the last five years, I've been a part of GUCI’s Camper Care team, a group of "camp moms" who bring various skills to the table. We are there to support all of the campers and staff with interpersonal issues, conflict resolution, and creating coping skills when challenges arise. We assist with the training of the staff. We work cooperatively through the year, discussing needs related to mental health and our camp community. We empower our counselors with tools when they are seeking help, and bask in the successes we watch happen, daily, as campers and counselors ally with one another. The beauty that is created in these moments is nothing short of magical; it reinforces the benefits of camp for staff and children.
After experiencing another summer in this amazing community, I am now reflecting on what it means to be a "counselor." Despite a long, circuitous route, I ultimately landed in my career as a therapist - also known as a counselor. I often notice that some of the most basic skills in my field I learned at GUCI: The seeds of my career were planted when I was taught to listen to my campers and “meet them where they were”, and to seek to understand them. Camp provided, and continues to provide, a living training ground for people to explore emotions and experiences in addition to testing out a variety of human interactions. Yes, I now have a formal education to reinforce those skills, but I also recognize that it is my education that reinforces many of the emotionally healthy things that happen at camp.
At camp, our children are able to trust one another with challenges and develop support systems. Creating a place for children to feel and express their feelings, and to be unconditionally accepted with these feelings, is something our children can draw upon throughout their lives. As a parent of current campers, I especially love that our children will have so many positive role models they trust and will always remember.
One recent Friday, the entire community sang a song about "one voice," interjecting intentions for their cabins based within ideas of kindness, respect, and understanding. One of the things that makes this camp so special is precisely our one voice: one committed to these simple and important values for 60 years. Better still is the knowledge that today’s children will continue to perpetuate them for many more.
Shayna Warner, MSW, LMSW, is a resident counselor in St. Louis, MO, and a camper care specialist URJ Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI), a Reform Jewish summer camp in Zionsville, IN.