Camp staffers find rewards beyond a summer paycheck

Sunday News Correspondent
February 23. 2013 1:22AM
More than 35 summer camps participated in the University of New Hampshire Outdoor Job Fair recently. Some students landed jobs on the spot. (GRETYL MACALASTER/Union Leader Correspondent)

DURHAM -- Kate Lavallee, 19, didn't choose to major in recreation management and policy at the University of New Hampshire because she thought it would make her rich and famous.

She selected that field of study because of the joy she derives from working with children with different challenges in what she considers the world's greatest classroom: the great outdoors.

"It is more of an intrinsic reward to help kids and be a guide to them," Lavallee said. "I don't do it for money."

As she prepares for a career in her chosen field, Lavallee is among hundreds of students also looking for summer employment - and she's just the kind of candidate various summer camps were looking for during the recent Outdoor Job Fair at UNH.

More than 35 summer camps from throughout New England were represented at the job fair, which was organized and run by UNH students. Some who attended landed jobs on the spot.

College and high school students make up the majority of summer-camp positions, with professional school staff, including nurses and cooks, often filling spots that require more experience and expertise.

This summer, Lavallee plans to return to a town-run day camp in Webster, Mass., where she worked the past seven years after being a camper there herself. Having risen through the ranks, this year she will serve as assistant director.

Many of the students looking for outdoor jobs are former campers, and those interviewed for this story said their camping experience has had a positive effect on their lives.

Senior Casey Blum, 22, found the outdoor education department at UNH after spending many summers as a deckhand aboard a schooner at Martha's Vineyard.

Watching how students learn outdoors was not something Blum felt she could replicate in a classroom.

"I'm just looking for something that's flexible and keeps me engaged, and just kind of enjoy the day-to-day life," Blum said. "I just want to be able to live within my means and do something meaningful."

Unlike many other college students who are having difficulty finding work after graduation, Blum already has a job lined up aboard charter boats in Baja California when she graduates in May.

Aimee Gigandet, summer camp director with the Newmarket Recreation Department's Camp Wanna Iguana, said college students looking for summer jobs may not think about the opportunities available in the outdoors unless they experienced camp life themselves.

"They may not know where to start or where to look, so they end up in retail all summer," Gigandet said. "I think this exposes students to all the camps around here."

Gigandet looks for staff members who had positive camp experiences themselves and want to make a difference in children's lives.

The camp has a special focus on students with various special needs, including autism spectrum disorders and physical disabilities.

In addition to students, Gigandet said, she hires a lot of teachers and therapeutic aide professionals for "friendship facilitator positions" to facilitate the camp's inclusion efforts.

Gigandet said she usually starts looking to fill positions in early March. She used to wait until May but found many qualified students already had secured summer positions by then.

Kate Wesolowski, who runs Camp Wiyaka in Richmond, said the fair gave her a good lead on an environmental educator. She said her camp's former nature director is a UNH graduate who passed the word along to current students at the university.

Wiyaka, according to Wesolowski, is a "classic" residential camp where staff spend the nights in platform tents with campers after days of swimming, boating, crafts and campfires.

She said in addition to looking for staff interested in working with children, camp officials look for staff with unique personalities who can relate to a variety of campers, from science majors or a drama students.

Wesolowski is a mathematician as well as a lifelong camper. She spent more than six years working in children's programs run by the Walt Disney Company before returning to New Hampshire and Wiyaka.

"It is just such a great environment to be in," she said. "Even if you haven't been in the camping world, it's never too late to dive in."

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