A Safe Space For LGBTQ+ Youth Summer Job Experience

Ashe Mattison, age 18, explains her experience of working as a camp counselor over the summer  in Staten Island, NY. 

Camp Counselor, Ashe Mattison smiles in a paddle boat. Photo courtesy of the New Country Pride Camp.

Over the summer, I worked as a camp counselor at a summer camp specifically specializing in creating a safe space for queer kids ranging from five all the way to 13. It’s part of a bigger camp called New Country Day Camp, but the section that I worked in was called New Country Pride Camp.

The camp is locally special because there aren’t any other places in New York that allow LGBT youth to express themselves without fear from the outside world. I think for me personally, this was a great learning experience, but we didn’t have the type of staffing to always give the campers the support that they needed in feeling comfortable to acknowledge that they are queer. We only had about two counselors to supervise per age group. It left us counselors really tired and just so emotionally overwhelmed. Our staffing was a very big issue.

We had specific activities in the morning called pride projects where we had special guests come in. We had people from a national queer theater and a drag performer come in and talk to our kids about what drag is. Along with the LGBTQ+ oriented activities, the camp also offers traditional camp activities, such as art, music dancing and theatre, a fan favorite—musicals and choreography were also on the docket. which was a fan favorite; a lot of kids liked dancing, so we did a bunch of musicals and choreography, stuff like that.

Despite how much fun I did have, it is not the best thing to be working at a summer camp. The days were very long; I got on the bus to leave from the city at eight o’clock and I got home closer to five every day. Being around kids was emotionally and mentally tiring. After being in school for a  year around adults and then going to work with kids is a huge adjustment. I had to get used to being in a more energetic environment and I always had to be upbeat.

We generally don’t need as much staff as the other divisions, who had maybe double the amount of kids that we had. But the thing is that we were the only division that was understaffed. At times, we had two counselors per age group, ranging from five all the way to 13, but a lot of our kids required extra support. We’re a camp that wants everyone to be included, but our staff numbers didn’t always correspond—there weren’t enough of us.

I can give one very specific example. One day we went to the boat pond as an alternative activity for those who didn’t want to swim. There were two counselors, me and one of our supervisors, Lonnie, and there were about 16 campers. We could fit three kids with one counselor on the boat at a time,leaving one counselor to watch over everyone else on the shore; obviously, we couldn’t leave the campers alone. It became this big deal of kids not getting a turn first or not being in a boat with their friends.

It was a lot of sensory overload. At the end of the day, I had to actually step out and take a breather, because I was about to have a bit of a breakdown. I never went to summer camp as a kid, so it was a lot for me to get used to this new environment while also dealing with our very apparent staffing issues.

This was my second year working there. Last year, which was the first year the camp was established, there were still a lot of decisions to be made that the counselors were not aware of. Early on when I was getting trained, it was entirely forgotten in an email that we were to be an organization that encouraged campers to be comfortable with their identity. We didn’t know what events were being coordinated and just generally what to expect.

This year was a lot better. We were very much kept in the loop. We had two supervisors and more staff, but even then, we were still under-supported. There were way more sign-ups than we had the previous year.

At the end of my time at college, I would really like to teach music, maybe to those at an elementary or a middle school level and expose students to singing and music. I think that me working as a camp counselor really helped to expose me to collaborating with all kinds of different age groups.

I found getting to provide a safe space for kids to be queer and to explore different parts of their identities while still just being at a regular summer camp to be very fulfilling. However, I have been hearing a lot of stories about so many teachers who went into the job because they love teaching but, with things happening in the world, starting to leave their professions because the job isn’t as fulfilling as it used to be. It could be part of becoming overwhelmed with so many kids.

Zander Doring

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