Early mornings and long days in the sun may not seem like a perfect summer job to everyone, but for some of Jefferson City's Parks and Recreation day camp counselors, their job is well worth the long hours.
Leigh Anne Long, who works as a school counselor at Pioneer Trail Elementary and has been a camp counselor since 2002, said camp counseling allows her to have a summer gig that allows her to continue building relationships with children.
"I feel like we're role models, and if we show what to do in a situation they (the campers) can take that and implement it into their every day activities," Long said while surrounded by some of her troupe. "Either emotionally or physically, if you're able to help kids through those tough situations it really does strengthen your relationship. Those are the kids you see later on and you have that connection and you can talk to them about what happened and have a connection for years to follow."
Long added, these days, she feels it's important for her to create experiences that allow campers to make connections away from technology.
"I really feel like any camp that they're going to this summer through Parks and Recreation — Out and About, Binder, Adventure, Waka Waka — is going to give them an experience where they can connect with people that is not through technology, and in society, that is important right now," she said.
The new camp program manager, Angie Toebben, who has worked with the city's Parks Department for more than 20 years, agreed.
"As a parent that has a kid that plays Fortnite all the time, I'm sure that a lot of parents are thankful that they can send their kids to camp and get them off of those video games," Toebben said.
"People I know have said 'I remember Binder Adventure' or 'I remember going to Camp Waka Waka,' so I think for campers, it's about making those memories and making new friends, because there's always new kids at camp. They could have a life-long friend just from going to camp," she added.
Long also remembers when she attended Binder Adventure and Waka Waka in her youth, but it wasn't until she went off to college that she decided counseling would be the perfect summer job.
"I really feel that it's a great opportunity for college kids because if they don't want to work during the school year (so they can) focus on their studies, then this is the perfect job," she said. "It doesn't just have to be an education major, I mean, you could have somebody who's a communications major, you could have somebody who's maybe going into being an equestrian, it could just be anything as long as you're able to be outdoors."
For Missouri State University computer science major Chase Dickerson, who is in his second year as a counselor, working at the camps gives him opportunities to enjoy recreation and the warm weather away from a classroom.
"My summer is so much better when I'm here," Dickerson said.
"I actually had two jobs last year. I live in Springfield because that's were I go to school, so I worked at Bass Pro Shop and then I was a part-time sub here. So I worked throughout the week here and then on the weekends down there, and I definitely liked this job better than the other one. I looked forward to coming here every day," he said.
Dickerson also mentioned he liked being placed for a job based on the interests and skills he already had.
"I like to see if they have some talents and then balance the different backgrounds," Toebben said, when describing what she looks for when hiring camp counselors.
"Do they have a leadership background; do they like to do crafts or are they an outdoors person? Do they like to go on trails, because we have ropes courses at some of them, or we have some bicycles that we can ride around. Do they love sports? If we're at the Out and About camp that does more sports. So I just try to find the right fit based on their hobbies," she said.
"I definitely think it helps them grow" she added. "They can still be a kid because they can play games with the kids, but then, they also have that adult role where they have to take charge and lead kids and discipline the kids if needed."
Dickerson said: "My first week here, actually, a kid, he's a big sports fan and I'm a big sports fan, and he would actually want to go with me down to the basketball court and shoot with me, so we would do that about three or four times that week and he really liked that. He says now basketball is his favorite sport so that was nice to hear."
But being a summer counselor isn't always a walk in the park, although some days quite literally will involve walking in the park.
Before becoming counselors, each new hire has to be CPR-certified and go through nearly a week of safety training. This year, the Parks camp program decided to extend its safety training to not only include video-based training but also presentations from the Parks Department, Jefferson City Fire Department and Missouri Department of Conservation to give counselors a more interactive learning experience.
"We learn the basics like safety, CPR, first aid, so that was part of the training and then a lot of it we learned interacting with parents and kids when dealing with issues," Dickerson said.
With camper enrollment numbers increasing, Toebben said extra training was necessary and well received by counselors. She also hopes to add another training program by next year.
"I felt like we got all three areas really covered well when we went in to do this," she said. "I asked them (the counselors) after it was over 'what did you feel about the training?' and they told me it was more than they had had before, and they really liked that they could have questions answered from the speakers that we had coming in.
"We wanted to train everyone on the mental health in first aid, but we could not get that out this year," she said. "Actually, myself and two of my special needs part-timers are going to go through the training in September, so hopefully that's something I can indicate for next year."
The Parks department has also been implementing another training program to help with the daily needs of the camps, but this program involves the campers.
Campers interested in working as a counselor in the future can join the Counselor in Training Program, which allows them to still have fun during the week-long camps, but they are given more adult responsibilities to help with younger children.
"It's been such a great thing to look at," Toebben said. "If a kid needs extra assistance or if they need more help with a game or say, physically, the kids are younger so sometimes it just helps they can work with the kids a little bit better and kind of have a big brother or big sister at the camp."
CITs have to be going into the seventh grade or older. They are also required to apply for the position through an application and an interview similar to regular job hiring. The program also allows campers to use their CIT experience on future job resumes and encourages them to use the same tactics as a counselor to have positive influence on other youth.
The CIT began three or four years ago, but Toebben hopes to see the program encourage more campers to become counselors when they reach the right age.
"They definitely have a lot of impact on campers," she said. "There's a lot of them where I've even had parents call me back this year or email me and say, 'Hey my kid wants to know about the Counselor in Training Program because they like the whole idea of becoming a counselor some day.'"
To learn more about Parks department youth day camps, counseling or the Counselor in Training Program for next year, visit www.jeffersoncitymo.gov/programs_and_activities/youth_programs/programs_and_activities/youth_day_camps/index.php.