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After Hurtwood (just…): the Camp America Counsellor, Karl Fonseka

So who wants to do something interesting with their summer break, between school, university or even (dare I say it) the real world? Fancy the USA? Well, read on.

The first few days of this autumn term brought in Karl Fonseka (usefully but temporarily employed about the campus) one year on from Hurtwood, one year into a PPE degree at Exeter, and one super-enthusiast for the Camp America scheme. Clearly still excited by the experience and positively bubbling with enthusiasm for the extraordinary learning curve that he has been on, he happily takes ten minutes of his precious lunch hour to share the experience with Muse.

So lots of practical advice on offer straight away from Karl, the first point being to make the approach through the Camp America scheme itself, rather than approach by location. Prepare yourself for the whole interview process. ‘You’ve got to really want to do it,’ Karl tells me, ‘you’ve got to be enthusiastic, you’ve got to be resilient. All day you’re going to be with kids and they’re going to test you, push your boundaries.’ Sounds exhausting? ‘You’ve got to keep up the energy. You cannot lose your temper or you’ll be fired.’ Okay – this sounds like really hard work, I say. But quite clearly the benefits far outweigh the negatives. Karl seems to have grown perceptibly: in self-command and confidence, and awareness of the skills so central to success in the working world.

Karl opted to go to Pennsylvannia, not that far from New York city. Indeed, this is where many of the camps are based and he is clearly still bowled over by the stunning rural beauty of what he found. ‘Between two lakes, the mountains and streams, rolling hills: it really was in the middle of nowhere. Incredible.’ I’m beginning to feel what it is that this experience has brought him, the sheer size and beauty of the New World. Another key piece of advice: be selective. ‘Research your camp. Don’t just accept the first offer you get. If I had done that I would have ended up in a religious camp in Florida.’ Camps are orientated in all kinds of ways, nurturing youngsters but with different starting points, so choose the focus that suits you. Sports are obviously high on the agenda and Karl makes clear that an obvious requirement is to be fit and healthy, not least because the work is pretty full on. But there are plenty of opportunities in terms of drama and performance skills.

Next piece of advice – choose the age group you want to work with and be prepared to justify your choice. Karl chose 10 year olds, and absolutely loved it, even though it means that he lived pretty well 24/7 with a lively bunch of 11 kids (in his dorm) and with a cohort of 40 in all. Surely, never a quiet moment.

Having chosen the role of general counsellor rather than opting for a particular skill, which in his case could have been tennis, say, or guitar, he moved about each day with his group of kids and their activities. He absolutely loved it, identifying that at the core of the whole experience is the relationships that you make with the kids, the trust. ‘I LOVED IT,’ he tells me more than once, and that is clear. I would also hazard the idea that the kids in turn had a great relationship with Karl, across the boundaries of country and tribe.

And what about the wider world? Did he get to meet lots of other counsellors like him? You bet! He freely admits ‘That’s one of the best parts of the job, meeting people.’ Americans? Of course, but also South Africans, Europeans, Kiwis. All similar ages. Sounds like it was one long challenging and totally fascinating experience. And the best outcome? ‘The best thing it’s done for me, for my personal development, is my confidence’. He waxes lyrical about how it has boosted his ability to communicate across age and cultural boundaries. ‘I had to come out of my shell,’ he tells me. ‘You’ve got to take responsibility… you need empathy, confidence.’ It is delightful to hear this maturity emerge from just one summer of work and challenge.

Financially it paid for itself and also provided the wherewithal for some American travel at the end. What’s not to love here, I think? Although I guess it is not for everyone. We part with the acknowledgement that, apart from all the other obvious benefits of the experience, he now also has some invaluable additions to his CV. Meanwhile, lunch is over and he needs to get back to the important tasks of moving books and equipment around the campus that so very recently nurtured his own A level studies. Thanks for the input, Karl – it (almost) made me wish I were 18 again; luckily the moment passed. Want to hear more? Look out for the podcast of the interview.


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