Would you trade your holidays to be a counselor?

Water fights, shouting, laughter, games of hide-and-seek and tag: This is daily life at a children’s summer camp. In the midst of it all are the counselors, who must keep this herd of children under some control. Why do they do it? Because they love these crazy kids. Yiannakis is just 5 years old and while he can go to the toilet by himself (after all, big boys don’t go in their pants), he still needs a little help when the going gets tough. And if that’s not enough, every night after lights out, he is the one in charge of telling a bedtime story to the other children in his cabin. A few days ago, he tried to convince Giorgakis and Sotiris, who sleep in nearby bunks, that a simple operation conducted by aliens will give them a third eye that would allow them to see in the dark. He also said that the operation will only work if you have been a good boy and have never killed an ant. Sotiris is obviously upset by the news. Does that mean he can’t have a third eye simply because he accidentally stepped on an ant last summer? And how are the aliens to know anyway? Yiannakis knows that aliens can see everything. They have a thousand eyes and know just who merits the operation. I only had a brief chat with Coralia, in what little time was allowed her by 20 screaming kids hanging literally from her skirt while waiting in line to play on the trampoline. All she had time to tell me was that she’s 17 years old and loves working as a counselor to Yiannakis, Giorgakis and Sotiris, as well as another 10 children. In order to fully grasp what it means to be a camp counselor, I set out for Summer Fun, a camp in the area of the Oraia Eleni springs outside Corinth, thinking I would meet two or three young guys and girls who got into counseling for a laugh, who could tell a joke and liked monkeying around with children. I wasn’t really interested in how old they were or how much money they made, or why they decided to spend half their summer cooped up in a camp with a bunch of children. What I was looking for was that one special person who just has a way of relating to small children. That was more or less how I arranged the interviews. The photographer (Vangelis Zavos) and I were under the mistaken impression that we were on an easy mission, ignoring the simplest of facts: that the people we were about to meet were a tiny minority compared to the hundreds of children we were faced with and had no idea how to handle. The time was nearing noon. The counselors’ «free time,» or break, was about to start. It is just one of the two hours they get off in 24. It was the one hour during the day when the young campers are left alone. We were standing outside the group of cabins named after the islands of the Dodecanese (Kasos, Karpathos, Symi and Kastellorizo). These house campers aged 8 to 10. Suddenly, I was surrounded by a tide of children. Something was definitely afoot. Some were trying to hide behind me, being quiet so the others wouldn’t see them. Some were rolling around laughing. Some were pretending to be taking notes, saying something about evidence, a kiss, spying. Petros was doubled over with laughter. Yiannakis gestured to me to take a few steps back. I looked around to see what they were up to, tried to read their faces for evidence of mischief, but there was nothing. I turned around, and what did I see? We had just ambushed a 13-year-old boy who was about to kiss his girlfriend; a perfect opportunity for a well-set-up joke and the inevitable game of chase that followed. I had been in this madhouse of water balloons, running around, shouting, laughter, mimic and chase for just a few minutes and couldn’t help thinking that for this small, cheery world to function and stay together there must be someone behind it other than the happy-go-lucky teenagers I was originally after. It must be someone with infinite patience, willing to give his or her all for these children. On top of the job Coralia, like Pavlos, Vangelis, Nikos, Anna-Maria and Ioanna, could very well have had nothing to do with any of this. They could have been on a beach somewhere, unaware that a job as a camp counselor even exists. But these individuals, who are themselves just out of childhood, have decided to spend half their summer holidays in this world made for children, worrying about whether Margarita finished her lunch, Tassos took a shower after coming back from the beach or whether Petros, who likes to poke fun, is getting along with the other children. «I personally see it as a challenge,» said Alexandra when I pressed her into explaining how a 24-year-old woman would spend 22 full days waking up and sleeping next to children who expect everything from her. Having studied as an assistant anaesthesiologist, she assured me that she could have easily found a job in her hometown of Patras. Instead, she chose to look after a group of girls aged 12 to 14. «This is the hardest age group to handle,» she said. «They are growing up, becoming young women, and you have to help them stay within certain limits. But, at the same time, they have to feel independent. They can’t feel that they have to do everything I tell them. Younger children have different needs and concerns.» I kept trying to understand the motive for such self-sacrifice. «I have a feeling that I will get a lot more out of it than I give,» she said before I could even ask the question. Things were a little different for Vangelis. Anna-Maria had told me that he was born for the job. For her part, she said that maybe she wasn’t the best person to ask about why she did it. «I just thought it would be a good experience,» she said. «The university was on strike and I thought, ‘Why not?’» I went to meet the «natural-born counselor» after hearing a lot about him. I heard that every night he does the rounds and wishes a good night and sweet dreams to all the children individually. That he tells them clever jokes and riddles that make them laugh. At one point, I realized that I was talking to the oldest counselor at the camp. Aged 26 and a mathematics student, Vangelis rattled off a list of all the jobs he had done so far. «I’ve worked as a waiter, as an assistant for a company that maintained sporting grounds, a security guard, a painter… My family does not have the financial means to support me over the summer, so I work for most the year and then spend the money the rest of the time.» But, the job he has always liked best was that of camp counselor. Why? Art of conversation «Kids need conversation. Experience has taught me that. You can’t tell them to just do something. It may work the first time, but after a while you’ll lose contact with them. Even if you’re just kicking a ball around with a child, you have to talk,» he said. «I let them ask me questions. It makes games more interesting. You can only understand what they are thinking if you listen to them.» The fact is that this is what makes the job of counselor interesting – especially when it is as demanding as it is, earns just 300 euros a month and lasts three months a year. I couldn’t help thinking that these counselors could be making twice as much waiting on tables at a cafe. I guess they never thought about the job in those terms. Pavlos had previously tried his hand at sales in a sports shop. «It was tough,» he explained. «It’s not easy to be a student and at the same time carry boxes around, show shoes, have a customer over one shoulder and a boss over the other telling you what to do.» He was trying to tell me how different an experience it is to have 12 small faces looking at you for direction: to wake them up in the morning, serve them breakfast, take them to the trampoline, the basketball courts, the swimming pool – how much reward there is in hearing 12 young voices shouting out for you, to show you the drawings you asked them to make even though it is not part of the job requirement. (1) This article first appeared in the July 23 edition of K, Kathimerini’s Sunday color supplement.