I'd always loved travelling, having previously au-paired in Spain and volunteered in Sri Lanka, so when it came to deciding what to do in the summer of 2015, I knew it would involve going abroad. Honestly, I didn't think camp would be for me, but as I searched for other experiences it was always at the back of my mind. As the summer grew closer, I gave in and applied. Next thing I knew, I was hired at a camp in Massachusetts, USA and on my way to Belfast for my visa interview.
Why did you choose Smaller Earth?
My flatmate had already applied to Camp Leaders and was having a positive experience with them. I did look into other companies, but the support and price offered by Camp Leaders seemed to be the most beneficial. From the minute I applied to now completing my returning application for my third year at camp, the staff have been amazing! As I applied pretty late to the program in 2015, the staff ensured that I completed all the correct paperwork in time and helped me through the process as much as they could. Again, in my second year, they were always there to answer questions and help with the dreaded paperwork. A representative from the company even visited my camp to check in with the staff!
What was your favorite part about the U.S.?
The best thing about being in America was definitely the people, everyone is so welcoming, and of course the opportunity to travel. Over two summers, I've travelled across more than eight states and visited some of the most amazing places ever! From Washington D.C. to the Grand Canyon, the possibilities are endless and I can't wait to go back and see more of the country.
What made your experience abroad unique?
As a non-Jewish member of staff at a URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) summer camp, I was able to connect to a religion that I'd never experienced before. Each morning the whole camp would participate in t'filah, where we'd sing songs and join together in prayer to start the day as a community. Services were often a highlight of the day where you could join with your campers and friends to sing and dance together. Growing up detached from religion, at camp, I found a welcoming community where I could connect to others through beliefs and values.
How did local staff support you throughout your program?
My camp director and the rest of the leadership were amazing. Any question or worry, they were always there to chat with you. Fortunately, I didn't have many issues, but any queries I did have, the staff were very open to answering. Your co-workers are the best support network; they know exactly what you're dealing with and are with you through every experience!
What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?
I definitely would have applied sooner if I knew how amazing the experience would be and how much it would impact on my life! I was sceptical of working at a camp, and even visiting America in general, but as soon as I arrived, I knew it was exactly where I wanted to be!
What surprised you most about the United States?
What surprised me the most about the U.S. was how diverse the country is. I never really cared for visiting it, but as soon as I got there and realised how amazing it is, I fell in love with it. From NYC to the Berkshires to Miami and Yosemite National Park, you couldn't get more different places!
Describe a typical day in the life of your camp.
As the junior camp counsellor, my day was a little different from the rest of the staff. Some mornings I'd get up early, sneak out the bunk, and go to the summer assistant director’s room to get his five year old son up and ready for the day. We'd then go to breakfast together and hop on the van to day camp at their sister camp. I'd wave him off and return to camp.
I'd then join my bunk of 14-year-old girls for morning t'filah (prayer) and then their day of activities. Each day was different and included activities, such as art, volleyball, zoo, lacrosse, teva (nature), pool, lake, and many more. Between times, we'd have lunch and dinner together.
Depending on the day, I'd go back to day camp to pick the staff children up and often spend the evening with them until their parents were off for the day. When I wasn't needed, I'd join my unit again (age group) to help run and participate in their evening program. These were often planned by the staff of the unit but were sometimes whole camp events. Evening program were always lots of fun. Following them, we'd return to the bunk and make sure the girls got ready for bed. Four or five counsellors are attached to a bunk, and each night, one would stay with the kids while the rest of the staff went on their night off.
What did you enjoy doing in your free time?
Each day we got an hour off, I mostly used this time to contact home or nap. At night once we finished with the kids, sometimes we went for ice cream, but usually I just hung around with friends. Each week we got a day off; the best thing about this was catching up on sleep! Most days off we tried to do something outside of camp. Some things I did on my days off were shopping at the malls, chilling by the nearby lake, going out for meals, and swimming at waterfalls. Sometimes we'd go to a friend’s house who stayed nearby to relax.
What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?
Many of the staff stayed in the bunks with the kids, but I stayed in the international girl's bunk my first summer at camp. The conditions weren't amazing with 32 girls in a split bunk with four showers and toilets between us, but to be honest, it didn't make a huge difference to my experience. We made it our home for the summer. The only time we spent there was to shower and sleep, and it was always nice to return to the bunk after a difficult day to be surrounded by your friends and catch up on the day's happenings. In the end, we loved Hilltop and were sad to leave it!
In general, the facilities at camp were way better than I expected. My camp had recently built a new dining hall, where the whole camp could have meals together. My favourite place at camp was the lake, especially when the whole community came together there for a whole camp event. And the sunsets were beautiful.
What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?
Yes the days at camp can be long and tiring but the positives always outweigh this. It's the best thing you'll ever do!
How has your time abroad at camp impacted your life?
You have no idea how much camp has impacted on my life. It's the place where I met some of my best friends. As I arrived at Newark airport on June the 13th, 2015, I met Charlotte. We got chatting about her ilovetour.co.uk t-shirt and she hasn't shut up since! Joking aside, we became good friends right away and still talk every day. Throughout the year, we have camp gatherings, which are always so much fun. After two summers, I now have friends from all over the world; America, Israel, Australia, Puerto Rico, The Philippines, Denmark, Spain...I could go on.
I think camp has made me a much more open person. As a trainee teacher, I work with children anyways, but camp has given me a much greater appreciation for children's lives outside of school and how much their experiences affect them. My confidence has definitely increased too - no way did I ever think that I'd be able to get up and be part of a skit in front of the whole of camp!
Camp never leaves you. Literally every day something will remind you of camp, or you'll be chatting to people you met while there or you'll be wishing you were back attempting to play a sport you've never tried before in the sweltering sunshine.
Would you recommend your summer camp to others? Why?
I would 100 percent recommend camp and Camp Leaders to anyone! The opportunity to work and live abroad with people from all over the world is just amazing. It's so difficult to explain just how great it is - you just have to go and try it! I'm lucky to have found my second home and I hope that anyone that decides to go for it does too!
If you could go abroad again, where would you go?
If I can't choose the U.S., next on my list is South America! My camp friend and I have spoken about travelling there soon.
Emily is from a small town in the (Scottish) Borders, but she moved to Glasgow in 2013 for university. She is now in the fourth year of her degree program focused on primary education, and she will graduate in the summer of 2017.