The summer of 2013 I had the privilege of serving as a summer camp counselor at Sierra Vista Camps in Ingram, Texas. For me this was a long time coming. I love working with kids, I love to experience American culture and I wanted to do something I had never done before. Stepping out of my comfort zone makes me grow as a person and makes me understand the world a bit better. Sierra Vista really did that for me. Read on for first, my honest experience in the matter where I will call a spade a spade, followed by some general information about Vista Camps.
Choosing Vista Camps
I used the website http://www.summercampstaff.com to search for camps in certain states. The only requirement I wanted for my summer camp was that the weather be nice, so I applied to almost twenty camps, all in southern states. Most camps did not reply at all, others were interested until they found out I didn’t have any camp counseling experience. Than came Vista. I had some e-mail contact with the director, did a Skype interview, took some online courses about abuse prevention and safety regulations and was hired. I was over the moon!
Arriving at Camp
On June 21st I had a 12-hour flight from Amsterdam Airport to San Antonio and was ready to take on this adventure. I remember the first thing that hit me when I walked outside, was the air. Holy guacamole, it was 8pm and it literally felt like I walked into a sauna. I never experienced outside temperatures like this in my life! Be careful what you wish for…
A girl named Paige picked me up and on the drive to Vista I turned her inside out with questions since I had no information whatsoever on what to expect. In return I got overwhelmed with information about tribes and songs and traditions. What had I gotten myself into?! Arriving at camp, I quickly introduced myself to the directors and other camp counselors and went to bed because I was exhausted.
Crying My Way Through Second Term
The next day was closing day for the first term, which meant a lot of emotional goodbyes between kids and counselors. I didn’t really know what to do with myself here so I strolled around camp on my own. After the kids left, it was clean up time and I heard the other counselors talk about renting a house for the weekend as camp apparently closed during the weekend of closing day. I wasn’t invited – which I understand ‘cuz they didn’t know me – so what was I gonna do then? To top it all off, jetlag got to me and I just couldn’t contain myself anymore. I went to my bunk and started sobbing until I fell asleep.
That evening two other counselors, K-Jack and Beccah, came to my bed and comforted me. They were going to stay at camp and asked if I wanted to join them for the rest of the weekend and I wholeheartedly replied “YES PLEASE.”
The next two weeks I continued feeling shitty because I felt inadequate to do this job. I didn’t understand the traditions at camp, I didn’t know what was expected of me and I didn’t get my own schedule. Moreover, I still felt lonely because I didn’t connect with any of my cabin counselors. Also, a LOT of bad stuff was happening at home, which I will not go into detail about.
I ended the second week at the nurse’s office because I had a high fever and this broke me. I wanted nothing more than to go home. Unfortunately flights were way too expensive and I was stuck. Luckily the camp director noted my miserableness and assigned me to a different cabin with different counselors.
The Change of A Lifetime
Most people from home still don’t understand me when I say Vista was one of the best experiences I’ve had. I don’t blame them, because for the first two weeks I was balling my eyes out every Skype session. How come I changed into this spread-the-love hippie?
It started with the transition into my new cabin. The counselors and kids were very welcoming and made me feel right at home. Secondly, I finally got the hang of my daily schedule and could find my way around camp. I was even able to sing along to some of the traditional songs. Feeling you contribute and you are competent in achieving a goal makes all the difference. I also started making friends. Most nights off I spent with Beccah; eating cheesecake, seeing a movie, “shopping” at Target and singing along to Ed Sheeran in the car.
Third Term’s a Charm
Last term rolled in, and this is where I felt happiest. The daily schedule was now part of me so I could focus on what I came there to do: connect with the kids and making a difference. And I did. I really got to know my fellow counselors and fell in love with all the new children. I somehow felt all motherly and protective over them. Nobody mess with my kids!
At closing day I had to take my plane back home. It was an emotional goodbye because I didn’t know if I’d be able to afford to see anyone of them again. The plane ticket cost me the equal amount of what I got paid that entire summer, so I wasn’t sure I was able to come another year.
I guess the moral of the story is, if it is your first time being a camp counselor give yourself two weeks time to get to know their culture – yeah, a camp really is a different culture on its own. After that you’ll notice things will get easier and you can really start having fun!
General Information About Vista Camps
If you want more information about Vista Camps go to http://www.vistacamps.com. Here you will find answers to most of your questions. But to know these answers doesn’t even come close to what it is actually like. You’ll have to experience it for yourself. I will do my best to describe what it’s like to be at Sierra Vista below.
A Day In The Life
Sierra Vista girls are woken up at 7am each day. You drowsily head with your cabin to flagpole where each cabin does a skit before raising the flag and saying the pledge of allegiance. At breakfast you stuff yourself with fruits and yogurts to make sure you last the three activities ahead. As a camp counselor, everyone has their own schedule on what to teach. Activities are lead by a minimum of two counselors, one of which has previous experience in that activity. I for instance taught volleyball because I used to play in high school. However, I’ve also taught archery which I’d never done before but my fellow counselor had. At lunchtime there is a salad bar and everyday there is something else on the menu. Because it gets HOT in Texas, you have to take a two-hour siesta around noon. After that you continue with two other activities until dinner is served. Tribe competitions are held around nighttime.
Lunch and Dinner
During these meals, all kids are shouting all kinds of quotes across the room; from movies, television series and sometimes even a funny thing a kid or counselor said that day. At some well-known quotes everyone joins in. At the end of the meal, don’t be shocked when the eldest cabin stands up and sings (shouts) a range of songs, accompanied with specific dance moves.
Campers are divided by age into different cabins. The cabins have specific names, e.g. the youngest are called the Hawks (6-8yrs.), the oldest are called The Roost (14-16yrs.).
Sierra Vista has two tribes: the Kiowas (represented in gold and white) and the Chickasaws (represented in purple and white). Every camper is assigned to a tribe at their first day at camp and stays in that tribe for the rest of their life. The biggest competitions are Superthon and War Canoe. At the end of term, the winner is announced and you end up with the whole camp crying; either because they won or because they lost. (This is not a fun time for counselors.) Note that campers can only identify with their tribe during tribe competitions. At any other time during the day, all kids from both tribes play nicely together.
Something To Think About
I absolutely loved Vista Camps at the end and I would love to go back someday. If I had kids, I would definitely send them there for the experience of a lifetime. It teaches kids so many values and skills. They learn to be independent but cooperate in a group as well. They learn what activities they like, what they are good at and are encouraged to be their best version. Vista is something I wish I’d went to as a kid.
For aspiring camp counselors I say this will be an experience of a lifetime as well. It truly is an adventure where you learn responsibility, leadership, no sleep and still functioning, and putting their needs over your own. It is a loving, encouraging, positive, “you CAN” environment. However, do note the following things:
- You will have no privacy whatsoever. You eat, sleep and pee next to the kids.
- You will never be alone. “You” time doesn’t exist.
- You are the person responsible for them. Also at 2am, when they are stung by a scorpion and you have to take them to the nurses.
- Texas is HOT and there is no AC in the cabins (except for The Roost), so bring a fan. As a matter of fact, bring three.
- You will have so much fun, but also feel exhausted all the time. This is a weird combination, I know.
Last tip: Search for and apply to camps in February. Most camps are then selecting their staff for that summer!