The Inside Scoop on Being a Parent Volunteer

Camp was always one of those experiences that I cherished as a camper and later as a staff member. The mere thought of my parents invading my precious camp life would have caused me to quiver. Don’t get me wrong. I love my parents but being at camp was my time to forge some independence. If my parents were there I know it would have been a different experience. So, when it came time for my kids to go to camp, the thought of being a parent volunteer never crossed my mind.
In fact, I was counting down the days until I could take a break from my usual parenting and carpool duties. Sure, I’d miss them, but I had visions of coming home after work, putting on my PJ’s, and binge-watching Netflix while resting in the comfort of my bed.
After my kids went away for the first time they were brimming with camp stories and memories, and they couldn’t wait to tell me about their new friends. Then the dreaded question came…why didn’t I volunteer like some of their friends’ parents did? For years I had filled my kids with camp stories, and ironically, I wasn’t even a parent volunteer.
I explained that I thought they might like a week away without mom and dad, so they could do their own thing. I kid you not…my girls looked at each with the strangest faces and replied quizzically in unison, “We want you there!!!”
And with that guilt-ridden sentence, I kissed goodbye a week’s worth of holidays and started my annual tradition of volunteering for a week. I’ll be honest, the initial thought of donning a hair net and working in the kitchen wasn’t my idea of fun. After all, I only have so many weeks of vacation in a year, but it’s a decision I’ve never regretted. Here’s a list of things I’ve learned along the way.

1. It’s more like glamping.

Gone are the days of roughing it for Jesus. Camp has come a long way from when I was a staff member, and it’s pretty much the “fancy camp” now. I stayed in a room all to myself far removed from the campers, with a private bathroom and shower. I even slept at night with a nice, cool fan. How’s this for irony, I found that I actually got more sleep that week than when I was home. Don’t have a sleeping bag? No problem, just bring some bedding for a twin-sized bed.

2. Pack the right clothes and accessories.

I suggest you leave your nicer clothes at home and get ready to sparkle in the latest hair net and apron fashions. The kitchen is hot and you’re prone to a few encounters with food that might leave stains. Better safe than sorry. On a side note, make sure you bring comfortable, closed-toed shoes. You’re going to be on your feet a lot. Don’t like hair nets? No worries…pack yourself a baseball cap and you’re good to go.

3. Game on from Day 1

Camp starts on Sunday and after I checked-in my kids and got them settled in their cabins, I headed off to unpack myself and then reported for kitchen duty. I was serving food and cleaning dinner dishes that very first night.

4. Make it fun wherever you serve.

Yes, it’s true you work hard but you can also have some fun. My nerdy side spent the week figuring out the most efficient order for washing dishes and the optimal drying and putting away time. I also discovered that it took two cycles of the dishwasher to dry and put away a rack of cups. Just like the GPS in my car has a time of arrival, or as I like to refer to it as “my time to beat”, so too did I develop a desire to knock down the time it took to clean the dishes using my stealth ninja mental ingenuity. By the end of the week I had shaved off over 30 minutes. Go nerd power!

5. Hello down time.

As an adult, I’ve come to relish my “me” time and have come to realize I don’t have enough of it. Serving in the kitchen afforded me the chance to attend devotions with my kids after breakfast, enjoy a small break in the morning, and a couple of hours off in the afternoon. I was usually done around 6:30-7pm every night and then the evening was all mine. During a typical work day, I don’t even get that much down time. During my first time volunteering I even found time at night to work on my Grad School thesis.

6. It’s a welcomed change of pace.

I can’t think of another time where I can unplug and be in the moment. Usually my phone is my 3rd appendage and goes everywhere with me. As a volunteer I ignored it for the week and enjoyed the unexpected digital vacation. Camp life has its own pace of life, and I learned to adapt. It’s a way for you to break off from the daily grind, do some hard work and feel appreciated. It also comes with a feeling of knowing you did a job well done and can instantly see the results. As a parent, how often can we say that?

7. You’re never too far from outside world.

I like my coffee. In fact, I don’t think you’d want to approach me without my morning cup. So, you can imagine my excitement when I realized that Starbucks was a 10-15min drive down the road and I could bask in its caffeinated glory every morning before I reported for kitchen duty. Just throwing that one out there!

8. It comes with a sweet discount.

Need I say anymore? It’s simple to do, just fill out the parent volunteer application, and submit your references and police check. The office staff will take care of all the paperwork and apply a nice discount to your camp fees once your application is approved.

9. Work with great people of all ages.

There’s something to be said for working with young people. A week spent with hardworking, Jesus-loving, eager world-changers will erase any preconceived notions you may have about millennials. By the end of the week you’ll be encouraged by the big hearts of this emerging generation. The leadership staff are also fun to work with, and you’ll be inspired by their passion and heart for camp ministry, and the kids they serve.
Before I knew it, the week was over. I was blessed to see my kids at meal time, get a huge hug every time I saw them and hear how their camp experience was going. It’s a different perspective to view camp as a parent volunteer and see the behind the scenes of what it takes to run an amazing week of camp.
I encourage you to give it a try, and yes, ahem…I’m referring to you alumni staff. It’s not the exact same camp experience from our younger, glory days but it’s still a lot of fun. Yes, we’re greyer now, perhaps not as svelte as we were in our younger days. Our body parts may creak now, and we don’t move as fast as we used to, but it’s still a great experience. Besides, it’s always more enjoyable with friends. So, get out of your comfort zone, be open to a new experience, and be a parent volunteer. You won’t regret it.

Nicole Sivyer is a wife and a mom. When she’s not writing and working as a communications specialist she’s running her mom-Uber and enjoying a good cup of coffee.