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Welcome to Camp Sunshine: Part II

Last month, we shared a look at what you can expect at Camp Sunshine from longtime counselor and volunteer Kayla Backus. This month, we're back with more insider information! Two more of our treasured volunteers, Ben Metzger and Kayla Clark shared some more about what you can expect at Camp Sunshine! In their own words, here's what you can expect:

What is the process when you first get to camp?

Ben: When you arrive, you will connect with a staff member and they will point you in the direction of your cabin. You will have some time to get settled in. Most often, our counselors sleep on the top bunk and leave the bottom open for the camper that they get to hang out with for the week. You will likely meet up with other counselors in your cabin and your PAL who will help you out during the week! Later we will jump into some training to be sure you have all the info you need to be an awesome counselor.

Kayla: You will be greeted by members of the leadership team who have been around camp for a long time! Don't be afraid to mention this is your first time, we would love to help you! You will have plenty of time to get yourself settled in your cabin. You will take the top bunk and your camper will be on the bottom!

What do you wish someone would have told you on that first day?

Kayla: There is no specific way to "do" camp. You and your camper will make your camp experience what it is, not the activities, songs, or lessons. Don't put pressure on yourself to make the connection work, be yourself and your camper will want to be themselves too!

Ben: The first time I was a counselor was a bit scary. I came to camp on my own and did not know any of the other volunteers. As a student studying technology, I felt a bit out of place and under prepared for the experience ahead. My nerves were put to rest quickly as I met other guys in my cabin and the leadership team who really helped me out a lot during the week. Having this support team was incredibly helpful throughout all of camp!

The best thing you can do is be yourself. It doesn't matter who you are or what background you come from. Camp is a place for everyone to belong just as they are - and the rest you will have plenty of support and guidance! What emotions did you feel as a first time counselor?

Kayla: I was feeling both extremes, excitement and anxiety, all at once. My first thought as we lined up for the welcome tunnel was, "There is no way my camper will be the very first one, so I will have time to settle in a little bit." Sure enough, my sweet friend Julie was the very first camper to arrive! Not only that, she started BAWLING at the end of the tunnel... my stomach was immediately in knots haha. She was nervous that she couldn't take care of her aunt while she was away, the sweetest ever!

Counselor Training Kayla: Training will give you in depth information about all things logistics, your specific camper information folder, tips and tricks on how to handle situations that might arise, and conversation that will spark the beginning of your growth from camp. You will also be with your cabin and start to get to know others you will be with throughout the week!

What supports are available for counselors?

Ben: Every cabin group has a PAL or Professional Alumni Leader; this is a resource that has been a counselor for several years and still is a part of camp to help guide you and navigate any tricky situations. Beyond the full-time staff, camp also has incredible teams all around camp that focus on specific responsibilities including medical, recreation, creative expressions, spiritual, accessibility, and facilities. If you ever have a question, there are plenty of folks that can help you out. Kayla: Your PAL will be your most accessible support throughout the week! This person is a former longtime counselor that is very familiar with camp and most likely most of the campers as well. They are there to help you with WHATEVER you might need! Nurses are available 24/7 to help with any needs that might arise with you or your camper. They are also great at helping with homesickness and identifying strategies to support campers if this comes up! The facilities team often helps with rides for campers who need a little assistance getting around camp with golf carts. Other leadership members will also be around and would love to help as well!

Meeting Campers

What do you do when you first meet your camper?

Ben: Same as you did when you got to camp! Take some time to get settled in and then go hit some activities around camp to help get to know each other. Chances are, the camper you are paired with has been to camp many times before and they may be able to show you the ropes! If the camper you are with has never been to camp, or maybe this is their first time at this location (Camp Henry/Blodgett) then you can do some exploring together. This camper is likely feeling a lot of the same things as you are so feel free to share the experience together. Be open and honest about your thoughts or emotions around your first time and this could be a great way to connect!  Kayla: Everyone at camp will make a welcome tunnel up by the entrance of camp while we wait for campers to arrive. Once they have checked in, given their meds to the nurses, and said their goodbyes to their caregivers they will let you know if they want a loud or soft welcome. You and your camper will enter your week through the tunnel and get their stuff to your cabin. From there, there will be many different stations of activities for you to explore if your camper would like. If not, there is a lot of freedom in taking your time if your camper is nervous or needs time to settle in.

Advice for first time counselors?

Ben: If you need help, just ask. Don’t be afraid to ask the camper you are paired with what to do or what they might have experienced in the past. Remember that this is their week and you are along for the ride with them. Let the camper lead the way and be sure to add encouragement!

Kayla: Give your camper all the control of how the week goes! You get to experience camp through the eyes of your camper, which is the most life changing perspective to have. Let them take the lead!


Ben: Meals at Camp Blodgett are family style so the food is passed around the table. Usually we wait on the deck to be sure everything is ready before entering the dining hall. This gives our kitchen staff a little more space to set food out and can make sure all the tables are ready to enjoy a delicious meal. Be sure to encourage use of manners and practice sharing. There is always plenty of food to go around! At the end of the meal, all the dishes go to a window in the kitchen so they can be cleaned for later.

Meals at Camp Henry are often buffet style. We will usually wait on the deck or in the theater until everything is set. Once the kitchen staff give the go-ahead, you can go get some food with your camper. Use a clean plate every time. At the end of the meal, we clean up after ourselves by delivering dirty dishes to the dedicated stations around the dining hall. Then we wipe down the tables before moving onto the next activity. 

Kayla: Meals are family style, where trays of food will be brought to the table you choose to sit at. There may also be buffet bars for additional sides at meals. You may sit wherever you would like at meals! Oftentimes, once campers find a group they enjoy being around they stick to wanting to sit at the same spot every time. Tip for counselors with campers in wheelchairs, the round tables at Blodgett are the most ideal seating space for accessibility.

How can counselors best support their campers during mealtime?

Ben: Keep an eye on food consumption. Some folks will need some encouragement to get enough sustenance. Others might need firmer rules around how much food they can eat during each meal. We don’t want anyone getting sick! If you are struggling with mealtime, feel free to ask your PAL or a medical team member who can provide some guidance or firmer boundaries if needed. Try to stick with the group the best you can and help with cleaning up before moving on and leaving a mess. 

Kayla: Allow your camper the most independence and freedom as possible. Ask questions if you aren't sure if your camper would like support with cutting or dishing food. Keep an eye on what they are eating and encourage them to eat healthy options/not over eat. Maybe make a challenge out of how much water you both can drink or how much fruit and vegetables you can eat. Make it fun and less controlling!

Counselor meetings

What are they and why are they beneficial?

Ben: Each evening, our counselors have a chance to get together and break down the day. This is time where you can share laughs and smiles from the high points, and perhaps ask for some support or guidance as it relates to the lower points to be better prepared for the day ahead. We will share some notes and information about what is coming next. There will also be some discussion time to reflect on your experience and chat with your cabin mates. This time also creates a space to recognize other volunteers on areas where you saw them shine that often go unnoticed. BONUS - there are usually some yummy snacks as well!

Kayla: After campers are settled in bed, community volunteers come out and sit near cabins to allow counselors to be able to meet as a big group to debrief the day. During this time, you will get "real" food (pizza, wings, subs, etc) and be able to engage in conversation that highlights our amazing campers. The stories that come out of this time are my favorite parts of the day. These meetings will also continue to change your perspective about camp and how our world views individuals with disabilities. This time is transforming and I encourage you to come expectant for it every night.

Any memorable moments from counselor meetings? 

Ben: I think the coolest part of these meetings is sharing how camp experiences have impacted my own life as well as seeing similar experiences from other guys from my cabin. Sometimes low points in the day can create a real drag, but these times together allow us to find those higher points that really make a world of difference.  Kayla: I have cried at several counselor meetings over the ways that camp is sacred. There have been pairings and stories that were shared that prove how there are no coincidences in the moments that happen at camp. This space is unlike any other and you feel it as you debrief with other peers your age experiencing the same things.

Day to Day at Camp 

Ben: There is so much to do at camp! At pretty much any moment in the day, there are activities and things to do. Some folks enjoy some activities more than others which is totally fine because there are generally options. Try to encourage the camper you are with to at least try the group activities. Some people really like something that they didn't think they would or maybe they were just a little nervous at the beginning. If there is something that is particularly challenging, just ask your PAL. They are here to help out especially during these times. One of the biggest things to note is that camp is flexible. We try our best to meet everyone exactly where they are and create an enjoyable environment. So if there is a specific need, let’s figure out what that is and see how we can meet it. 

Sometimes the most scary things are the most fun and biggest memories when we reflect back. This might be the Giant Swing where it was scary to go way up, or maybe it was really difficult to pull the bow back at archery. I think that we all grow the most when we are able to face these challenges, learn and grow. It is important to provide as much encouragement and support as you can! 

Kayla: Sunshine provides our campers with all the experiences of a typical summer camp. Do not let your mind limit the things that you and your camper can do! My camper that utilized a wheelchair to get around did more low ropes challenges than any of my previous campers who could walk independently! You and your camper make the experience what you want it to be!

Preparing for Camp

How to prepare body and mind for camp

Ben: REST! Camp can really take it out of you. We have early mornings and late nights. Rest up before you jump into a camp session. 

Try to bring your true and authentic self to camp. While difficult at times, the best camp experiences come from lowering your walls and being vulnerable at camp by showing exactly who you are.  Kayla: My biggest advice is to come open minded and leave changed. The dignity and empowerment that is the heart of camp does not only have to exist at camp. Bring what you learn and experience to your life at home too! Be sure to try to get as much sleep as you can, you're going to need it! I also suggest bringing a water bottle that you can refill and snacks (although there is a TON of food at camp).

What to do if you’re nervous at camp

Ben: Call Ben! I’ve been there. Seriously - if you have any specific concerns or if you are just feeling overwhelmed, let’s grab coffee and chat. Sometimes having a familiar face when you get to camp can be reassuring! New things are scary but camp is one of the most inclusive environments that I have ever been a part of. Social norms and judgments are left at the camp gates and simply do not exist. Be yourself and care about others and you will have an incredible experience with Camp Sunshine. Kayla: If you find yourself getting nervous, take a step back and look at the joy that surrounds you. There is no pressure to "do camp right". Staff, campers, and returning counselors look forward to this week for an entire year just to be around each other! Take everything as it comes and stay in the moment. If you are in an uncomfortable situation or are not sure how to handle something, please don't be afraid to tag in a PAL or other members of leadership. We are here to support you however you need!


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