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I worked as a camp counsellor during the summer of 2016. Photo: CC, Mohd Fazlin Mohd Effendy Ooi via Flickr.

The summer job shaped me, and continues to shape me, into the person I am today

Ottawa’s Summer Employment Program is open to applications from Feb. 4 to March 1.

It’s a beautiful day in the peak of summer  2016: the sun is high and bright, almost surreal looking in a picturesque and cloudless aquamarine sky. It’s one of those days where the stifling heat is beat back just enough by the gentlest of breezes to give way to a, dare I say, perfect temperature. Mother Nature, at least, seems to be totally at peace.

I can’t help but stay fixated on the sun and the sky, trying to forget for just a second that my world is one of cataclysmic chaos unfolding in front of my very eyes.

I’m at Wild Water Works, a massive water park in my hometown of Hamilton, chest deep in a wave pool that smells strongly of chlorine and faintly of urine. But I’m not here for leisure: I’m on the clock as a camp counsellor at a popular summer day-camp in the region, tasked with minding a group of close to 30 kids aged six to 10.

As I stand there in the water desperately trying to do a headcount of the bobbing bodies wearing our camp’s baby blue t-shirts, mentally preparing a list of things I’ll need to do and needs I’ll have to attend to, I’m tackled by a hoard of laughing campers and plunged beneath the water. Beneath the waves I let out an inaudible scream, coming up for air with a smile painted across my face just in time.

Days at summer camp don’t always go quite like this, but sometimes they do. Anyone who’s ever worked as a camp counsellor will tell you when they do go like this, they can take a lot out of you.

They’ll tell you of the war wounds you come home with, scratches covering your back and bruises sprouting on your thighs and arms, sometimes accompanied by the occasional bite mark.

They’ll tell you about the stress of the job, those constant and relentless fears that you’re missing a kid (you’re not) or that a camper with an allergy got into the exact food they’re allergic to (they didn’t).

But they’ll also tell you just how worth it the job is, no matter how tough a shift might be.

I’m not one for cliches, but being a summer camp counsellor is so much more than a job: for me, it was a key component of my growth as a person and an employee, regardless of the field of work.

Nearly two years have come and gone since I spent a summer as a camp counsellor, but the skills and lessons I learned there are still strikingly fresh in my mind. In fact, in job interviews I often find myself bringing up my experiences at that camp, explaining how it taught me to mediate the toughest of conflicts (who stole whose cookie?), to listen and respond effectively to diverse needs (so you need me to check if there’s a monster behind that wall?), and to solve complex problems (this is why we can’t hit others!)

But in all seriousness, these are majorly important skills to have.   

On the other hand, some of my fondest and most cherished memories growing up can be traced back to one of the numerous summers my brother and I spent at summer camp. It’s where I learned to be myself, to make friends, to collaborate with others and, most of all, to never be afraid to try something new. So while I know being a camp counsellor is integral to personal growth and the development of important life and employment skills, it’s equally as important to the kids these counsellors work with.

I honestly think everyone should spend a summer as a camp counsellor. I’m not arguing every young person should be forced into this type of job, but that more young people should give it a shot. I, for one, wouldn’t be the person I am today without it.