Happy campers in the USA

23:16, Feb 18 2009
GREAT OUTDOORS: The author's friend Liz takes a break in the stunning lakeside landscape near the camp.

Young travellers might be some of the least affected by a global economic downturn. In fact, they can get paid to visit the United States in return for working at summer camps, says camp counsellor Solfrid Gillman.

Every year, hundreds of Kiwis skip the New Zealand winter for back-to-back summers. They head north to teach American kids loads of fun activities at summer camps across the United States.

Summer camp is an American tradition, almost a rite of passage, and for Kiwis looking to experience the American way of life while working in a fun environment, Summer Camp USA is a unique opportunity.

I'm an Aucklander aged 20, and I travelled with IEP New Zealand to work as a "counsellor" at a summer camp near Belfast, Maine, the heart of New England in the northeast of the US.

I wanted to travel and to work with kids, and Summer Camp USA sounded like an interesting experience.

About 600 Kiwis travel each year to work as counsellors and instructors. It's a great chance to live in another country with a very different culture.


As a counsellor, I was in charge of a cabin of up to 20 girls. Some camps are single sex, some mixed. Some kids stay the whole eight weeks of summer, but most stay for a week or a fortnight.

I also worked on the ropes course, as well as teaching other classes like outdoor cooking, hiking and instrument-making.

We would wake the girls, get them ready for the day, then go to breakfast. After camp meeting we would all go to our classes. Each counsellor taught four classes a day, two before and two after lunch. Then there was an hour for interest groups, which entailed a lot of different activities for the kids before dinner.

After dinner there was always an activity like making S'mores, a cracker sandwich of roast marshmallow and chocolate, famous in American folklore; or a trip down to the lake, or a dance party.

Sometimes the directors would organise activities and events for the whole camp. Other times, people would come in to perform for the kids. It was different each night and we always had lots of fun.

After camp activities, we'd then take the girls back to the cabin and read them a story before bed.

I really liked working with kids on the ropes course. Watching them complete it and feel a sense of achievement was awesome.

I also really enjoyed learning a different way of interacting with the kids - pushing them to try something new.

Every summer, the directors organise a candy drop. They don't tell anyone when it will happen but towards the end of the session they leave clues around the camp and the kids start trying to figure it out.

Usually it happens during camp meeting in the evening. When the kids hear the aeroplane flying over, they all run to the football field and wait for the candy to be dropped out of the window of the plane.

Watching 300-plus kids running across a soccer field trying to catch candy in their pillowcases, plastic bags, jumpers and hats is pretty insane. The plane usually flies over three times and, if the pilots aim right, most of the candy will land on the football field.

One of the really good things about camp is that you meet people from all over the world; people you would probably never have normally met. We were all from different places and had different ideas and ways of working with the kids.

After working at Summer Camp USA, I spent a week travelling to New York City, then I flew to Costa Rica to complete a volunteer programme, also organised by IEP New Zealand. I spent three months living with host families and volunteering in schools by helping with English classes. I travelled on the weekends with other volunteers and was able to see and experience life and culture in Costa Rica.

Now, I am in British Columbia, Canada, living at Big White ski resort and working in the daycare and the rentals department. I will be here until April and then I'll travel around Canada before flying home in June.

With all the exciting changes and buzz surrounding the US at the moment, especially with the really popular new president, Barack Obama, there is no better time to experience all that America has to offer.

* More information and applications at summercampusa.co.nz or on 0800 4443 769. More on IEP NZ volunteer programme or Work Canada, check out iep.co.nz or 0800 4443 769.


How many camps are there?
Over 12,000 camps spread across the United States.

How many people go to camp each year?
Over 12 million campers and 5 million staff.

Isn't it just a babysitting service for parents?
Definitely not. The campers love their time at camp, and develop their own community each summer. Camp is an active, fun time and campers usually don't want to leave!

Who can work at camp?
Anyone aged 18 to 30 with experience working with children or in a leadership role and who is eligible for a J1 visa.

Do you get paid?
You will earn US$1775-US$1950 (NZ$3500-NZ$3850) for your first summer at camp, and if you return the next year it's higher.

When is it?
You need to be available for nine weeks between June 1 and August 31.

What activities are there?
You could be doing anything from swimming and surf lifesaving to waterskiing, archery or high ropes. Almost everything you can think of is an activity at a camp. Even circus, music, crafts and horse riding are offered.

Why do they want New Zealanders?
Kiwis are known to be committed, hard workers. This reputation makes them sought after as staff. International staff are an important part of summer camps as they add a different flavour and diversity to camp.

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