I started going to camp when I was six, or more accurately, I was sent to camp at six years old. I was dropped off on the shores of Lake George for two weeks without any prep, and let’s just say it was not the most enjoyable transition. What I didn’t know as a small child was that my mom sent me to camp to keep me out of the house during a divorce proceeding at home. Camp was meant to protect me.
I promptly sent letters home to complain about everything from mean campers to lazy counselors. I now know I was just angry about a situation out of my control, and many campers find themselves in a similar situation each summer. Children can feel lost as they process a departure from normalcy, being outside of their comfort zone or coming to terms with a change in their childhood support network.
At this tentative time, children can choose one of many paths to cope. This tumultuous time could have consumed me with misplaced anger or feelings of inadequacy. I remember feeling guilty, that our change in family dynamic was somehow my fault. In this maelstrom of emotions one thing remained a constant: camp.
Every summer for two weeks I got to reunite with the same friends, none of whom knew the struggles I faced at home — and really none of us cared. For two glorious weeks, we were all focused on the freedom of camp: the ability to go on an adventure and be among peers who withheld all judgment. At the helm of these fond escapades was a legendary class of individuals who in our minds had no equal: our counselors.
The first counselor to make an impact on me was named Ben. We call him “Big Ben,” because he was tall and British. Most importantly, though, he saw me. He saw an angry child who was frustrated in unfamiliar surroundings and needed a guide. Ben, and many other fantastic counselors, accepted their roles as beacons. Under their tutelage, I was able to rebuild my confidence in myself, learn how to make the most out of my surroundings, connect with my peers and most importantly, I was reminded that I was deserving of love.
At 16, I volunteered to be a counselor-in-training. Prior to this, I had only held one other job as a backroom store clerk — grunt work. Alongside a group of 20 other like-minded teenagers, I was given the opportunity to help foster the same spirit of enthusiasm and the ability to overcome adversity that my counselors had encouraged in me. During that time I developed the patience to listen and cultivate powerful friendships with coworkers and campers alike. I felt the rush of making a difference. It instilled in me the desire to lead, not in a selfish way, but in wanting to make a difference.
For the next three summers I was a camp counselor, followed by program director, assistant director for a day camp, and then an outdoor education instructor. In each of these roles, I learned to process failures and turn them into strengths. I learned how to become approachable and respected as a supervisor. I learned that the professional world of camp had so much more to offer than I had ever imagined. I found my calling.
Camp’s impact on me in the real world was far-reaching. I watched as many of my peers visibly struggled into adulthood with all the responsibilities that came with it. They were unable to cope without their parental support network. Camp allowed me to conduct myself in a way that belied my youth and made me seem more experienced and capable than my peers. It helped me crush interviews and presentations, conduct myself with pride, and most importantly, develop passions and meaningful relationships.
Camp remained where I thrived. I was drawn to the controlled chaos, the long hours, and the difficult yet rewarding situations. After receiving my degree, I dedicated myself to camps across the country. Building bridges between East and West Coast camping sensibilities to provide the highest quality of experience to the youth of the world, I am living my passion. My personal mission is to show our campers that as long as you strive to be the best version of yourself you will find happiness in this world.
I have been working in camps for over a decade, and I have no intention of slowing down anytime soon. My life’s path was set by an 18-year-old kid from London who gave a damn and made a difference. Thank you Big Ben.
Stephen “Snacks” Smigielski is a Florida native who began his lifelong camp experience at Camp Chingachgook in Lake George, New York, at the age of six. He spent more than ten years as a camper before starting a camp career in 2006. In 2014, he joined Pali Institute’s Outdoor Education program as an instructor, moving to Pali Adventures summer camp in 2015 as head counselor. Snacks is now year-round leadership staff and senior camp director for Pali Adventures in Running Springs, California.
Originally published in Camping Magazine. Reprinted by permission of the American Camp Association. ©2018, American Camping Association, Inc.