Last summer I was the lead boys counselor for a disability summer camp in Colorado. I was often the go-to person for handling difficult situations. This post will discuss some of my basic observations about the people at camp. I will name no names and remain in accordance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
This is part 1 of a 3-part installation of posts. This post will deal with the issues of counselor power, counselor burnout, and accommodation.
Introduction of Post
The camp I worked at served a population with an extremely wide variety of disabilities. It was initially very easy to see how different our campers were from “normal” people. One camper might have bad teeth, another might be extremely repetitive, and yet another could invade your personal space. Some may seem standoffish, and others perpetually angry. The differences seemed stark.
It is too easy to see superficial differences. As a new counselor it is easy to get caught up in your “normalized” comparisons. Ultimately, these easy thoughts are what harm you and the rest of the camp the most. They lead to thoughts of superiority, an expectation of control, and inevitably result in mental burnout. This blog post will discuss these issues in more detail.
Counselors vs. Counselors
As the lead boys counselor I soon realized that the most challenging aspects of camp did not rest with the campers; they rested with a large fraction of the staff. This is because of a precarious social and mental dichotomy. Most of the counselors understood that our campers would have differences. They knew to have more patience with this population, and they tried not to compare these people to a falsely “normalized” understanding of human kind. But, the counselors, and some of the staff, largely failed to do the same when it came to each other.
We treated campers differently from how we treated each other, and with little justification. The ridiculousness of this reality becomes apparent when the following observations are made: 1. How similar the campers are to those you know in your personal life. 2. How very similar the counselors are to the campers.
In the social disability rhetoric, impairments are merely variations in a greater context of the human condition. To accuse each other of “acting like campers” (a common insult among counselors) is to make a differential judgment that fails to recognize human commonality. It is just as easy to say that a camper acts like a counselor in both a negative and positive sense. Indeed, I know several instances in which this negative comparison would fit perfectly.
Of course, many of those in the special needs population require extra attention, a greater level of patience, and stricter controls. But, I had to deal with some counselors who required extra attention, a greater level of patience, and stricter controls, too.
Counselors should treat each other with the same accommodating mindset as they use with campers. We must expect a different standard of responsibility for counselors since they are in power positions. But, the patience and the genuine effort to understand that counselors extend towards campers should be shared among each other. We need to give each other the benefit of the doubt.
Counselors vs. Campers
The ability to adapt mentally and logistically at a special needs camp is absolutely the most essential element in the smooth functioning of camp life. Often counselors are not up to the task.
Many counselors (who tend to be in the 18 to 23 age range) soon realize that they have a fair amount of power at camp. Power to decide activities and power to enforce ground rules. Too often this sense of power results in counselors who set their own rules of behavior for the campers.
Asking your campers to do little things to make your life easier (like putting their clothes in the dirty clothes bag) is not a problem. It is when you try to enforce strict rules like these that things become problematic. It is the difference between “will you please” and “you must.”
We need to be as accommodating as we reasonably can be, and we need to push the definition of "reasonable" as far as we can without jeopardizing safety. If a camper insists on moving his/her bed, find a way to move it. If a camper insists on taking a shower, find a way. If a camper refuses to take a shower, do all you can to convince him or her to do so. But never ever use force.
Do not rely on the camp director to uphold your invented rules. The camp’s purpose is to accommodate and create a fun, safe place where campers can have a quality vacation. The camp director’s job is to accommodate within reason, not to uphold your non-accommodating rules.
If there is no way to accommodate a camper, and you cannot convince him/her to live within the limitations of camp, he/she cannot stay at camp. If you are an intelligent, open-minded person this is very rare. The only time this is an issue is when safety is a concern and there is no way to accommodate.
The accommodations we use are not granted due to a disability diagnosis so much as they are granted due to individual observation and adjustment. For example: if a person has issues walking, that person would get a cart ride up the hill. While the diagnoses on our intake forms occasionally helped me know what to expect and how to communicate, most of the diagnoses were more distracting than helpful. At camp the usefulness of the medical model of disability was limited at best.
We do all we can to follow the rules set by parents and guardians, especially when it comes to meals. Some requests are simply impossible to follow completely. For example: getting campers to put on a clean shirt every morning can be difficult when trying to get down to breakfast on a timed schedule.
We cannot worry over every single detail because if we do it all falls apart. Sometimes it is okay to let little things slide, provided we make an honest effort to make up for them later in the day. Ethically, our priority is safety. If that means someone goes to breakfast without brushing his/her teeth one morning than so be it. He/she will brush during afternoon rest time.
Patience and Frustration
Frustration is probably the biggest reason for counselor burnout. Frustration is an emotional response to negative, or unmet positive, expectations. At camp, frustration is most often a response to unmet power expectations.
Everything you think “should be” is not necessarily the way life will work at camp. Sometimes campers will yell at you. They will try to run away, get in your face, and wake you up in the middle of the night. The counselors might get in unhealthy relationships with each other, and the campers might do so as well. They will all test you, and you will at times find yourself in an extreme state of frustrated exhaustion. This, however, is easily remedied.
Whenever you feel frustration think about it like this: your frustration is your mind demanding to be unlocked. It is the fist banging on the doors of your mental limitations. Accept the situation as uncontrollable and try to guide it to a new and better reality.
When one of our young campers kept running out of the boy’s dorm one night he set off the alarm at least four times. We tried to get him to settle, and all of my counselors were frustrated (including myself). But, the last time the kid ran I ran with him to the main lodge. It turns out that he was having issues with the chaos of the dorm while everyone was getting ready for bed. He has hyperactivity, and he said his “brain just would not tell [him] to sleep.” So, we waited together until he felt tired enough to sleep. I accepted the situation, and I was able to guide it to a reasonable solution. As I went to bed that night the frustration I had felt seemed childish.
Redirection is as much an internal skill as it is an external skill for maintaining a positive environment. Redirect your frustration into wisdom by expanding your limitations.
As with everything disability related, we have to understand the false nature of “normal” to overcome the internal and external barriers we construct in our lives. Camp is no different.
Future posts about this camp (subject to change):
1) Men, gender, and our duty to serve the special needs population.
2) The issues of relationships, micromanagement, and the camp catch 22.