Jill Balk used to count the days until school ended, so she could do what she loved most in the whole world: spend her summers at Camp Louise, an overnight camp for girls in Cascade, Md.
“I wanted to be in camp forever,” says Balk, who became a camper at Camp Louise when she was 11. Now 24 years old, Balk can’t wait to start her fourth summer there as a unit leader, where she oversees a group of bunks.
Every year millions of children in America flock to summer camps, for days of bonfires, swimming in the lake, barbecues, and simply being with their friends.
Balk, who graduated from camper to counselor, says one of the best things about working with campers is that she can watch kids have the experiences and discoveries that were so important to her.
“Being able to give that to the next generation of campers was one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve ever had in my life,” says Balk, who is also a teacher in Baltimore County. “ And now here I am, years later, still trying to create those same experiences for campers.”
Other campers-turned-counselors feel the same.
Abigail Svetlik, a counselor at Camp Moshava in Street, Md., began as a camper there when she was 12.
“I think that the really cool thing about being a counselor at a place where you’ve grown up is this feeling of giving back to the community and sustaining this cycle that requires people who have grown up there to work in order to instill the same desire to work in the people who are campers now,” says Svetlik, a Washington resident.
Zoe Bayewitz was also a camper before she became a counselor. She was 2 ½ years old in her first summer at Camp Shoresh, a day camp in Adamstown, Md. She cites her relationships with the staff and her friends as reasons behind becoming a counselor.
Counselors don’t always grasp how much the campers appreciate them until the end of the summer, Bayewitz says. She first learned that lesson when her campers cried around her when the season ended.
“You don’t realize how much of an impact you have as a counselor,” Bayewitz says. “But looking back on all of my past counselors, they all definitely formed who I am. So being able to do that for other kids is really amazing.”
Bayewitz, who is from Silver Spring, is planning on returning to Camp Shoresh in June for her fourth summer as a counselor. She says there is nothing like the energy at a summer camp.
“The head staff and all the other counselors provide such a good environment,” Bayewitz says. “There’s no other job that gives you that feeling of being home when you’re working.”
Camp Louise, like many camps, had to cancel its in-person sessions during the summer of 2020 due to the pandemic. The camp set up virtual programs for counselors and campers to stay connected.
When they returned to in-person programming in 2021, Balk says things looked different, including mask wearing and certain traditions being tweaked. But Balk says it was worth it to her just to be back there.
“After all the crazy life struggles and challenges that the pandemic brought to everyone, walking back into camp was the most emotional and unreal experience ever,” she says. You really don’t realize how much you appreciate something until it’s not there.”
Camp Louise is celebrating their 100th anniversary this summer. (Its sibling camp, Camp Airy, is 98). Balk says the camp always creates “magical summers,” but this one promises to be extra special.
“The feeling you get there isn’t like anywhere else in the world,” Balk says. “I think it speaks a lot that it was the way I grew up at camp that inspired me to become a teacher. It really shaped the rest of my life.”