Secret to being a good camp counselor: Just dance parties, humor

Courtesy photo
Counselor Madeline Hughes and a camper danced and bonded at their overnight camp in Maine.

By Madeline Hughes

I got the job on the spot in March: I was going to be the photo counselor at a camp in Maine for a summer — eight weeks of hanging out by a lake and taking care of kids.

I had done a lot of babysitting and volunteered at a few summer day camps in high school, but I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into.

The eight weeks were filled with smiles, laughs, tears and fears.

My friends and I laughed and smiled a lot because there was nothing else to do but go with the flow. I consoled many crying campers — some because they were mad that I had confiscated their candy, others because they had a fight with their friend.

And I faced many fears, including my fear of heights. I was the one who had to climb up a 20-foot ladder to take a group photo of the campers.

Lice, not nice
On the first day of camp, the lice-detection team met the girls as they got off the buses, checking the girls’ heads. If one of them arrived with lice, we could control it quickly.

Only after the girls were checked were they released to head to their cabins.

As I stood by, waiting to meet my campers, I got the dreaded call over the loudspeakers: “Maddie Hughes, come to the nurse’s station.”

There, I met one of my campers in full-on tears. She had head lice, and had no idea how it could have happened. She said her mom had made sure to wash her hair really well in the weeks leading up to camp, in the belief that lice prefer dirty hair.

“That means you have really clean, yummy hair,” I told her, and that’s the kind lice like. (In truth, the American Academy of Dermatology says lice do not care whether the person has squeaky-clean hair or dirty hair. The lice are looking for human blood, which they need to survive. Millions of people get head lice each year, and infestations are especially common in schools. In the United States, it is believed that about 6 million to 12 million children between ages 3 and 12 get head lice each year.)

She was fidgeting, making it hard for the nurse to untangle her hair and track down all the lice. I had to be that comforting person for a kid who was over 300 miles away from home for eight weeks.

So, I made jokes and snuck her candy. I played and danced her favorite song, “Cheerleader” by OMI, which was the song of the summer at camp.

And every morning for the next 10 days, my camper and I go up early to wash her hair with lice shampoo. It was certainly a bonding experience, and it helped me learn not to get worked up over things I can’t control.

Impromptu dance parties
I was the bunk mom for five wonderful, hilarious 8-year-old girls. I worked with a co-counselor, but she wasn’t around a lot.

Every day we had a quiet period, and since our campers were young, we were expected to take turns in the bunk every other day to make sure our girls behaved. My co-counselor wasn’t so good about being there. So when I went to grab my bathing suit before heading down to the lake, my girls would beg me to stay.

So, I would pull out my phone and we would have a mini-dance party to songs they liked. This wasn’t technically allowed — the younger girls weren’t allowed to have music devices, and I as a counselor wasn’t supposed to be using my phone in front of them. But I wasn’t scrolling through Facebook instead of watching them, so I figured it was OK.

So, it was “Cheerleader” every day. By the end of the summer, I had the words memorized and a dance choreographed. Making fun of myself was the best tool I had.

Other counselors would bribe their kids with candy, which on a counselor’s stipend added up quickly. Instead, I bribed my kids with music and dancing. Because I was laughing at myself, the girls felt free to loosen up and laugh at themselves, too.

Bunk dance parties solved fights between the girls, hurt feelings when a letter from parents didn’t arrive on time, and other incidents that can hurt morale.

At the end of the summer, I was asked — essentially forced — to climb up a 20-foot ladder to take a group photo of the campers.

My campers saw that I was scared and they danced to make me feel better.

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