Careers in the Outdoors Part III: Interview with a Camp Director

Most people have been stuck in a rut on the road to professional fulfillment at one time or another. Hikers in particular often fear the Dystopian Office Job, feeling stifled in positions that don’t readily accommodate free-spirited personalities, physical health, or outdoorsy proclivities. In this article for our Careers in the Outdoors series, I’m turning to fellow Trek writer Alexa for some perspective on leveraging work, volunteer, and hiking experiences into a fulfilling career.

Tell us a little about yourself.

Camp Director Bonsai at work.

My name is Alexa, better known on trail as Bonsai. I thru-hiked the PCT in 2017 with my future husband (Bighorn), and have been addicted ever since. I plan to hike the Superior Hiking Trail, a 310-mile trail in Northern Minnesota, in late August of this year. This will be my first solo backpacking trip and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to gain more independence as I spend three weeks alone in the wilderness.

What is your current job title and where do you work?

I work for the Winona Family YMCA as the Camp Wenonah coordinator. Generations of families have been going to Camp Wenonah and continue to send their kids as they come of age. It’s an awesome place to work and has helped me feel strongly connected to my community since moving here. My thru-hike last summer was in part why I got the position I have now, so I’m glad to be an example of how thru-hiking can help advance a career rather than hurt it.

What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

Every day is a little different, which is in part why I love my job so much. We have anywhere from 20 to 40 campers during any given week, and a staff of ten counselors. With so many counselors to supervise the campers, I have a lot of flexibility in how I can use my time at camp.

When I’m out of the office, you can often find me sitting in the camp yurt developing programs for the off-seasons at camp or deciding which projects we’ll pursue next as we continually work toward the improvement of camp facilities. When I’m not working on program development, I’m often supervising my staff or helping facilitate the ropes course or camp programming. This is always a fun break in my day, giving me the chance to be silly and play games with the campers.

When I’m not at camp, I’m in the office piecing together the logistics for the following week of camp. This includes communicating with parents, planning field trips, and planning improvements to existing programs.

Did you always know this was the career you wanted, or did it unfold naturally?

Before I left for the PCT, I was working as a volunteer programs assistant for the city of Duluth’s Parks and Recreation department. I helped coordinate volunteer programs and led workers through various park improvement projects. This was my first hands-on experience in developing programs and working one-on-one with participants. I loved the opportunity it gave me to work with diverse populations of people while educating individuals about the importance of environmental stewardship.

Before working for the city, I had various experiences in volunteer and event coordination during my year  with AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps. At NCCC, I planned volunteer events intended to engage communities in service work, which was where I first discovered my passion for program coordination and development. I loved the creativity involved in piecing together a volunteer event and the outreach process to recruit volunteers. I didn’t expect myself to continue pursuing this pathway after I graduated from AmeriCorps, but the position in Duluth kind of fell into my lap, and I followed the path to where I am today.

How did you transition into this field after your hike?

My transition into this field was a little rocky. When Bighorn and I finished the PCT, we decided to move to his hometown to be closer to his family and some friends. Winona is a relatively small town, so jobs in this field weren’t exactly in excess. I struggled to find a job that appealed to me and eventually settled on working in the childcare department at the YMCA. Childcare wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be doing, and I ended up spending the first few months feeling rather stuck with no room to expand. I was hopeful that there would be room for me to grow into a higher position doing the work I felt more passionate about. Luckily for me, that’s exactly what happened. After about five months of working in childcare, the previous camp coordinator moved out of town. I had already demonstrated my passion for the outdoors and program coordination to the existing leadership staff, so after a quick interview, I was offered the position.

What are your coworkers and employees like? Working environment?

My employees are the best, and I’m not just saying that. I have a deep appreciation for their ability to self-manage themselves and to keep energy high during rough weeks. When I’m out at camp, I often feel useless because the counselors are so self-sufficient. As a program manager, this is the best thing I could have asked for. My coworkers are equally awesome. There can be a lot of workplace drama, but overall I work with a group of incredibly passionate and dedicated individuals who all want what’s best for our organization as a whole. The environment itself can be incredibly distracting. We work in a small office where we’re all in close proximity to one another. It does help us get to know one another a lot better and collaborate more efficiently, but I also feel grateful to have camp as a refuge when the office feels too claustrophobic.

What are some skills you’ve had to pick up as a director?

The art of zipline.

In this role, I’ve found myself significantly more busy than I’ve ever been. Being a camp director is a really multifaceted position. There’s always something that can be done and if I find myself a moment of peace, it’s not long before a new task makes its way to my desk. I love being busy and consider myself well organized, but I’ve needed to learn to be more adaptable in this role in order to keep up with the pace of the job. Sometimes things are forgotten or there’s not enough time in the week to do everything. Accepting that as the reality and not getting discouraged was an important lesson for me.

Is there a typical “career arc” in this field? Do you need specific education to advance?

Although it could be helpful to have an environmental or recreation tourism background, there really is no one set “career arc” in order to get into this field. My degree is in religion and global studies, but my work experience is really what propelled me into this field. Each of my previous experiences helped me learn more about program development and coordination, which helped me move into the role I’m in now. If you’re interested in pursuing a career as a director of a camp, I encourage you to gain work experience that allows you to manage or develop youth programs. Learning the basics of how to coordinate lots of moving pieces would make you a successful candidate for a position in this field.

What are essential qualities for a person working in this field?

I think a lot of different personalities could be successful, but certain skills would be helpful. Adaptability is one that immediately comes to mind. You can invest so much energy and time into piecing together the perfect program with a strong staff, but the reality is that anything can happen at any moment to derail the plan you put together. Strong organizational skills are another essential quality. There are many moving pieces when it comes to running a program like a summer camp, and being able to keep every detail organized will help you go a long way.

What do you think people who are outdoorsy and thinking about getting into this field should know about the job?

Sometimes the job isn’t that glamorous. There’s a lot of routine stuff that can wear on you quickly. For me, the routine stuff is office drama that gets in the way of progress, things breaking down or being damaged and not having the budget to fix it, naughty campers who don’t want to be there, etc.

Every job comes with little things, but I anticipated the little things being more about day-to-day problems with staff or campers, and less about problems that are ingrained in the systems around me. I can’t fix my coworkers’ attitudes, I can’t suddenly increase our budget, and I can’t always have perfect campers. That said, even on bad days, knowing that every day of my workweek will bring the opportunity to be outside makes a world of difference.

What is your favorite part of the job?

Every week, I hear stories about the ways in which my counselors have changed the lives of their campers. A few weeks ago, two of my counselors had a camper who was incredibly shy and nervous. Each day she struggled to say goodbye to her mom and kept mostly to herself throughout activities. The counselors worked hard each day to help her feel comfortable with the other campers and slowly she began to come out of her shell. She challenged herself to do the zipline twice, she began to sing the camp songs and play each game alongside her fellow campers. At the end of the week, the mother of the camper came up to the two counselors and thanked them for all that they had done. She said that she had never seen her daughter so outgoing and so excited each morning to embrace the day. It was evident to her that the counselors had a huge impact on her daughter’s life, and she was really grateful for the opportunity they gave her to continue growing out of her shell.

Moments like these are easily my favorite part of the job. It’s always been important to me that my work is meaningful, and when I get feedback like this from parents or counselors, it’s evident that the work we’re doing is having a positive impact on our community. It’s the part of my job that continues to motivate me when I’m tired or overwhelmed, helping me feel like there’s purpose to the work that my staff and I are doing.

Least favorite?

My least favorite part about my job are the negative attitudes that can sometimes arise when working with lots of different personalities. I feel fortunate in that I’ve worked in a lot of diverse environments and have grown accustomed to adapting to various personalities; however, it can wear on me really quickly to have coworkers who aren’t willing to embrace a positive and teamwork-centered attitude. Somehow, the negative voices always seem the loudest. That being said, the vast majority of the people I’m surrounded by each week are wonderful and make a world of difference at my job.

Any parting words?

Working as a camp coordinator has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had yet. It’s a crazy, chaotic experience but one that I’m constantly learning to embrace and grow from. If you’re anything like me and love to be outdoors but also have a slight pull to do some office work, being a camp coordinator presents such a perfect balance between the two. Having the opportunity to choose to spend my day inside or out has let me really embrace what my needs are in each moment, and has allowed me to appreciate the time I do spend outside at work so much more. The added benefit? You get to act like a kid half the time and no one gives you funny looks—they only encourage it.

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