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My summer spent as a camp counsellor in the USA via the Camp America programme is still one of the best experiences of my life. Yes, even a whole eight years later. I worked as a Performing and Fine Arts camp for eight to 16-year-olds called Camp Ballibay, situated high up in northeastern Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains. My roles were counsellor, theatre director, lighting designer, costumer, play-introducer, mail-collector, shower-Nazi, dining hall setter-upperer and many, many others. My time at camp taught me how to work hard on little sleep, to think on my feet, to not be quite so uptight and go with the flow. It was, in short, one of the best decisions I ever made.
– This post was originally published on 17th September 2015 and has been updated.
Camp Ballibay is a little different to the traditional summer camps you may have seen in films like The Parent Trap (1998) and Wet Hot American Summer (2001). Actually, while we’re on the subject, no American summer camp is like Wet Hot American Summer. There’s no fencing, climbing walls and games in the lake. It’s a rustic, arts-focused camp where kids can choose their own itinerary of music, art, dance and theatre along with some traditional camp activities like swimming, horseback riding, tending the garden and camping under the stars.
So, if you’re interested in what life was like (for me, at least) at Camp Ballibay, this is a somewhat typical ‘day in the life.’ In truth, every single day was different for every single person at the camp. That’s the beauty of Camp Ballibay. But this is a general idea…
Day in the Life of a Summer Camp Counsellor in the USA
7:00 – Wake Up
My co-counsellor Cherie and I looked after up to eight 13/14-year-old girls in our cabin. We would generally wake up at 7:00 and we’d shower first. At the beginning of the summer, we also asked the girls to get up at 7:00 which some of them didn’t like since they reasoned that they didn’t need so much time. I realised I was sticking to my guns for no good reason and I wasn’t compromising. So, Cherie suggested that if they could get up later and still be ready in time for breakfast then they could continue to get up later. And they did!
Top Camp Counselling tip: Always look to compromise as long as you’re not breaking camp rules!
8:15 – Breakfast Time
Then, we’d walk together from the girls’ cabins down to the dining hall. Sometimes I was on breakfast set-up duty so I would head down to the dining hall earlier. Each of the counsellors all had odd jobs to do around the camp and that was one of mine. Every week we’d be assigned a different table to sit with and if you sat with the littler kids you’d get your food first. Which I often did as I had older kids in my cabin, yessss!
The unique thing about Camp Ballibay is that the counsellors in most departments called individual lessons with the kids depending on what they told us they wanted to do whilst at camp. Some took singing lessons, guitar lessons, horse riding lessons, etc. Whatever they wanted! Counsellors stood at the microphone in the dining hall after breakfast and called the kids to morning lessons and hopefully, they would write it down or have really good memories!
9:00 – Morning Activities
For the first hour after breakfast, the kids would go for morning activities like those music and singing lessons, art classes and dance lessons. Since I was a Theatre Director at camp, I didn’t call kids for individual classes. I would spend this hour planning rehearsals, lighting charts, picking costumes, choosing plays and printing scripts for my next production. I would direct a one-act play/staged reading every week and a musical every two weeks so there was always some form of planning to do.
10:00 – Main Camp Activities
This is where the individualism of Camp Ballibay comes in. Ballibay is technically made up of four semi-separate camps: Rock Farm is where kids could be a part of a band, take music lessons and perform in big band night at the end of their session. Farm Arts is where kids could take part in all kinds of art activities such as painting and drawing, sculpture, photography and ceramics to exhibit their work at a big art show. Endless Mountains Dance Camp was a dance intensive which was great because fantastic dance professionals would work with the kids and they would learn jazz, ballet, modern, goodness knows whatever else with a big dance recital to show off their skills at the end of their session.
The ‘camp’ with the most amount of kids was the regular Camp Ballibay where campers would normally be in one or two shows (depending on what they wanted to do) and would take part in music lessons, swimming lessons, horse riding lessons, work with the video and radio team, whatever else they chose around their theatre rehearsals. Another great thing about Camp Ballibay is that it also has its own garden that grows a plethora of vegetables that the kids can learn to tend.
So for me, I spent two hours in the morning rehearsing one of my productions. If I was rehearsing a play, we’d be out on the outdoor platform. Or, if I was rehearsing a musical, I would be working in the Ballibay Theatre with my fantastic music director TJ who MD’d both of the musicals I worked on that summer. He also took the reigns on choreography which was also outstanding, he’s a crazy talented guy.
12:00 – Back to Cabins
Because the kids do so many activities all around the camp, it’s important that they check-in at different points of the day. Cherie would sometimes be on lunch setting-up duty (as I did at breakfast) so I would take the girls down to the dining hall from the cabin. And sometimes, I’d be on mail-collecting duty which was an awesome job! I would load up the mail on the back of a golf cart and drive it down to the dining hall. It’s the simple things, you know?
12:30 – Lunch Time
Annnnd unsurprisingly, lunch was very similar to breakfast! However, we would slowly begin to dread that it was ‘make your own sandwich’ day (I’m sorry but American bread is trash) and that our dessert would be watermelon when all we ever wanted was to be served some delicious brownie or cobbler whipped up by Dale. We were so demanding.
13:30 – Rest Hour in Cabins
Everyone’s favourite part of the day! During rest hour, we would all go back to our cabins and either read quietly, sleep, learn lines, write letters and whatever else. But we were always quiet during this time, which was nice. I read so many books during these hours. Sometimes I would nap but I’d always wake up with an awful headache so it never seemed worth the tiny bit of sleep I’d catch up on. Plus, you actually have to watch the kids, you know?
14:30 – Hillside Announcements
You remember at breakfast that each of the counsellors had to go up in front of the microphone in the dining hall and call campers to morning lessons? Exactly the same thing happens at hillside announcements for the afternoon.
We would all gather at a place unsurprisingly known as ‘the hill’ and call campers to a lesson. I never had to worry about lesson clashes as all the kids in my play or musical would automatically be coming to rehearsal. Sometimes, other counsellors would ask if a kid could be excused for a half-hour lesson during rehearsals because perhaps they really wanted to work in the garden and due to other commitments hadn’t had the chance yet.
15:00 – Main Camp Activities
Exactly like the morning activities, except in the afternoon. Because I’d always be directing a play and a musical concurrently, I would have rehearsals for one in the morning and the other in the afternoon.
17:00 – Back to Cabins/5 O’Clock Special
Most often we would head back to our cabins and make sure everyone was safe, sound and accounted for. But sometimes, each of the different departments would take it in turns to prepare a little show for us all to enjoy before dinner. You still did a quick headcount of your cabin crew though, just in case!
17:30 – Dinner Time
Back to the dining hall for dinner! Dinner was always extra special because we would sing the chorus of ‘Day by Day’ from the musical Godspell as a way of saying grace before we sat down at our tables. This was beautiful because we had a lot of various religions at camp and even if the kids weren’t religious, it was a nice inclusive way of expressing our gratitude of being able to enjoy the experiences that we were having at camp. And I actually directed Godspell during Camp this year which was extra lovely!
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18:30 – After-Dinner Sports
Though it was something I never really took part in, occasionally the kids who wanted to play basketball, football (or ‘soccer’), tennis, etc. would play sports after dinner if the main evening activities allowed for this time.
You see, this is where it gets confusing because evenings were rarely the same at Camp Ballibay. There were many, many different evening activities. Sometimes we had extended evening activities where kids would be called for more lessons. Another was Jam Night where kids would sign up for a specific department, not necessarily one they usually took part in, and they would do something special. Another was a bonfire like on July 4th, and of course, it may have been a show like a Camp Cabaret or Staff Cabaret, a play, musical, dance recital or rock night. No two nights were the same!
19:00 – Evening Activities
This was the final session where campers could be called for an individual lesson (which would be done at dinner, just like at breakfast and hillside announcements).
20:00 – Back to Cabins
This is final time campers would go back to their cabins after evening activities but before heading for the big evening entertainment. I didn’t often go back to cabins during this time because I was either with the kids doing a pre-show warm-up, or I was house managing ie. I supervised campers setting up chairs and making sure the theatre was fit for an audience and then I would introduce the performance. So, often my co-counsellor Cherie would look after the campers by herself!
20:40 – Evening Performance/Entertainment
If the evening’s entertainment was a DJ Dance, musical, play or rock night… They didn’t actually kick off until 8:40! Well, the kids needed to be outside the theatre at 20:30 and then I’d call them in, cabin by cabin. Usually, tiny campers went in first then the big kids sat at the back. We’d also get an evening snack, too. I think zucchini bread was my favourite.
Depending on their age, the campers had staggered bedtimes. The littler campers had a bedtime of 21:30 which seems reasonable, but they rarely actually made that bedtime! Our cabin of 14-year-olds often didn’t make our bedtime at 22:45!
22:00 – Back to Cabins
It never happened but ideally, our campers would be back to the cabin by 22:00 and those who showered in the evenings could get their hair dried in time. And those who were covered in luminous, green theatre make-up could attempt to scrub it all off!
22:45 – Lights out!
Exhausted, we would all fall asleep before our heads hit the pillow. If all of our campers were all in bed, quiet before bedtime, we’d let them read or listen to their music by torch but because evening shows ran late, I think it happened only twice. Often I would still be planning the next day’s rehearsals after lights out because the fun never stops when the sun goes down!
So that’s an average day in the life of a camp counsellor at Camp Ballibay, a summer camp in the USA. At least, it was for me when I was a camp counsellor in 2012. Feeling inspired? Please do check out the Camp America website if you have any more thoughts or questions about being a Camp counsellor in the states. It’s hugely rewarding and the guys at CA are phenomenal and with you every step of the way. You can also check out the Camp Ballibay Facebook page if you want to see recent pictures and stories from the camp.
And that’s a breakdown of a typical day in the life of a summer camp counsellor working in the USA! Have you thought about applying for the Camp America programme? Or have you worked at a Performing Arts camp? Let me know in the comments below!