Past and Present Camp Counselors Share Their Love for Camp Foster
The idea that “Kids Can Be Kids” is one reason campers love to come back to Camp Foster year after year. Parents, who once attended or worked as counselors, now send their own children. Kids of all ages travel from across the United States to be a camper for a week.
Abbie Parker, Director of Camp Programming at Camp Foster, believes the camp’s popularity is due to its unique location and ongoing popularity with teen campers. Camp Foster is located in a beautiful area of the Iowa Great Lakes, situated along the east shores of East Lake Okoboji and has areas of prairie and woodlands.
“There are few camps located in a summer tourist destination. We get campers from all over the United States due to their family’s long history of being in the Lake Okoboji area during the summer months,” Parker shared. “We talk to other camp directors around the world, and to date, we haven’t found another camp located in a similar setting.”
Camp Foster offers programming for all ages, but has a large portion geared towards teen campers. This age group tends to struggle to find time for camp. However, Parker says Camp Foster has weeks where they have more 13-16-year-olds than 8-12-year-olds.
“I attribute this all to the fact that we have a long standing tradition of letting kids be themselves here at Camp Foster,” she said. “And as a teen, when they don’t have to fit into a certain mold, it is a breath of fresh air. They can come here and drop the feeling that they have to maintain a certain stereotype and can just be themselves.”
Campers come back year after year to see old friends and their camp counselors. Camp counselors are hired from around the world and are pivotal in creating an amazing experience for the kids.
“They are adults, but close enough in age that they don’t have the parent feel, so kids relate to them (and they relate to the kids) so much better and easier,” Parker added.
All counselors go through an interview process and have references checked, as well as undergo a background check. When interviewing, Parker looks for individuals passionate about making the world a better place. She also wants them to follow Camp Foster’s five values (Respect, Responsibility, Caring, Honesty, and Fairness), while willing to be flexible, are FUN with kids, and have good communication skills.
Camp Foster typically employs counselors from across the United States and around the world, including the United Kingdom (England, Ireland, and Scotland), Australia, and New Zealand. They sometimes hire counselors from Spain, Germany, France, Brazil, Mexico, Dominican Republic, and Columbia, etc. “We believe they add to the overall camp experience by bringing the bigger world into a smaller focus,” Parker said. “We often have them share with the kids about traditions and things about their home country. For kids that might not ever get to travel abroad, they gain a taste of what life outside the United States looks like.”
For more information on Camp Foster’s summer programming, visit www.campfosterymca.com. In 2020, campers will be excited about the new zip line and hatchet throwing range.
For Will Tampke, Camp Foster is about community and how it brings people together. “Like any organization, there is a common culture and value system that exists there, and at Foster, the most obvious aspect of that culture is the overarching desire for everyone in and around the camp to be a part of its compassionate community and wanting them to be themselves,” he said. “To my sisters and me, our week at camp was what we looked forward to all year. There we could be at a place where we could genuinely be ourselves, and we knew everyone else also bought into the program as we were. It was an incredibly loving environment and it was responsible for a lot of my self-esteem growth as a kid.”
One of Tampke’s favorite things about camp, while a camper and also a counselor, is the outdoor activities, many of which can only be done at camp.
“Never in my high school or college experiences have I gotten to play Capture the Flag, Kayak Polo or Conquer the Lake,” he said. “Camp offers us counselors and campers the ability to just be outside and enjoy each other in a way that we don’t always get in today’s society.
As a counselor, Tampke has learned the important role of patience. Over the course of the summer, he has had cabins ranging from 10 six-year-olds to 12 sixteen-year-olds. He said every age group presents different challenges, and as a counselor, you have to take an extremely frustrating situation, patiently step back, and try to understand the issue the camper or campers are facing.
“Nothing brings cabins of 6 to 16-year-old boys together like playing as a team,” Tampke added. “And on a personal level, helping them facilitate conflict resolution between these young people, I believe, really helps them in their ability to empathize and see each other’s perspectives.”
Tampke will be the Waterfront Director this year, while also having campers throughout the summer.
Bro and Allison Brennan
Brian (Bro) and Allison met at Camp Foster in 1994, as both had family ties to the area during the summer months. As college students, they both felt led to work at Camp Foster and their relationship grew from their experience together. In 1996, the couple was married at Camp Foster, and years later, they now send their two children to Camp Foster.
“Camp Foster is everywhere. It has been with us on the beaches and mountains of Oregon and the plains of the Midwest,” Allison said. “It is one of our life homes and comfort. We can visit there any time of year and feel at home. It's like visiting a favorite Grandparent's home, knowing some things might have changed, but most things haven't. It smells of soothing campfire and lake. It is peaceful even when hundreds of kids are singing. It is positive, safe, and full of love. I always joked that it’s magical like Disneyland without rides.”
Over the years, the Brennan family have gained camp friends everywhere from Spain, Missouri, Florida, Nebraska and Minnesota. Even in their small town of Iowa Falls, the Elementary Principal worked with the couple back in the day. “Camp Foster is everywhere...Camp Foster is the purest form of good and love,” she added.
As a family, because of Camp, they do positives at dinner and are always singing camp songs. Bro and Allison love that their kids get to share in their life beginning and completely understand Camp Foster.
The couple has also taken what they learned as counselors and incorporated the experiences into their adult lives. For Allison, who is now a mental health counselor and owns her own practice, learned as a counselor about un-judgmental love and how to listen. Counselors also help kids take risks and encourage laughter. “Camp is about helping kids grow emotionally, as well as having fun,” she said.
For Bro, he learned how to present himself and feel comfortable talking to crowds of over 200 people. “And not be embarrassed, even if he should be,” Allison added. “Both Bro and I feel so lucky to have started our relationship in such a bright and loving place. It has only made our marriage stronger.”
The family says “Keep the Flame Alive!”
Camryn Shaw loves to talk about Camp Foster! She has worked at camp for the past two summers, and in 2020, she’s looking forward to working with the Foster Corp (18-year-olds).
“There is an instant feeling of relief when I enter the campgrounds, and honestly every time I feel like I am home,” she said. “There is no place in the world, in my opinion, where you can absolutely be yourself. I have never grown, challenged myself, and laughed more than while I’m at camp.
Shaw loves how she can sing at the top of her longs, whether it’s at meal times to campfire to walking to and from places.
“It’s loud and it’s crazy, but to look out at all those faces singing at the top of their lungs, there is nothing better honestly,” she shared.
An important role Shaw embraces is being able to facilitate dreams in the heart of campers. Because camp is created to be a safe environment, her favorite thing is to say “yes.”
“Every single day you get to wake up and create memories, while helping kids grow in and through the five values that we support at camp,” she said.
The other area of importance is safety, because there is a wide range of experiences at camp, a counselor has to be constantly be aware and vigilant of their surroundings. Campers are always the number one focus.
One of Shaw’s favorite spots at camp is right behind the chapel, there is a sign that reads “I’m third: 1. God 2. Others 3. Self.”
“When I went to camp my first summer I was honestly lost, in search of something that would help lead me in the right direction. I knew nobody on staff, had never been to camp before, and was honestly so scared. During tours, we walked by this sign and I instantly knew that camp was where I needed to be. Ever since then, I have been living my life under God and others, and I have never looked back. Every year, I leave Okoboji a little bit kinder, a little bit wiser, and with a lot more fire. Once the foster flame ignites in your soul, there is no turning back,” Shaw shared.
Shaw looks forward to impacting campers this summer and creating an experience of a lifetime for each one she encounters.
For Jeremy Webb, Camp Foster is the tradition and magic you feel all around camp. He says it can be difficult to pick his favorite thing about camp, “because every day is such a great day.” However, the activities that stand out to him are the “Morning Huddle.”
“Waking up to such a positive environment is better than a coffee with two extra shots of espresso,” Webb said.
His other favorite thing about Camp Foster is the Friday Night campfire. It takes place at the end of the week, and depending on the camper’s age, different things take place. For instance, 16-year-old campers receive grad candles and are given a short speech by Camp Foster’s Executive Director Josh Carr.
“It’s awesome to see grads with such passion for a camp, one they may have gone to for ten years or only one. It speaks to the power of Camp Foster. Then, we sing ‘One Tin Soldier,’ a song that teaches a life lesson about sharing with others and not cheating your friends. It creates an amazing atmosphere that I’ve never experienced anywhere else,” Webb shared.
From Boise, ID, last summer was Webb’s first summer at Camp Foster, and in 2020, he will be working as a Resident Camp Program Director. He loves to see how much a camper grows throughout a week. Away from their regular lives and often around different kids, he said campers have the opportunity to become the people they want to be.
“Camp is a place where campers can find out what they are passionate about, while developing their confidence. Seeing a camper who wouldn’t say a word the first day become loud and excited about things is one of the most rewarding parts of being a counselor,” he said.
Kris or “Kit Kat” worked at Camp Foster for two summers, with his favorite activities being the Chuckwagon, Friday Night Campfire, Cooking Hobos, and Campouts. As a counselor, he loved his cabins of kids and being able to teach campers new activities, many of which hadn’t done prior to camp.
“I loved being able to encourage them to step outside their comfort zone and be themselves,” he said. “I also really learned about being patient and to not take anything too seriously.”
Benson also discovered the importance of being flexible, because nothing is ever going to go exactly according to plan.
“Counselors have a huge impact on children, so we have to give it our all and give the kids the best experience possible,” he added.
Benson now works with kids at a YMCA, and the qualities he learned as a counselor he uses in his everyday life.
“I encourage my colleagues and staff every day to give it their all, expect the unexpected, and remember why we do what we do!” Benson shared.
Grace McGowan has worn a lot of different hats at Camp Foster, whether as a camper, counselor, nurse’s assistant, or a program director. Her parents met at camp in 1989, and her brothers are also on staff at Camp Foster. Their mother was the camp nurse for many summers, and aunts, uncles and cousins have also worked at Camp Foster through the years.
“You can look back at staff pictures and see members of my family going back 30 years. However, there is a reason that my family, much like other staff members, come back year after year. Camp Foster is a magical place and special to so many people. The songs, activities, and stories have been passed down. There have been times when I have been stopped by a stranger wearing something that says ‘Camp Foster,’ and it is always the same positive reaction and memories about camp and how much they also love camp,” McGowan shared.
As a counselor, there are numerous responsibilities throughout the day, whether it’s traveling with cabin groups to activities, leading the activity or managing a program area. McGowan’s first summer she loved to teach about nature and would lead campers on hikes through the wooded area around camp. She said kids would love to pick mulberries, explore the butterfly garden, and build a “survival hut” in the woods.
Through all of this, McGowan says the personal growth experienced while at camp has been immense.
“Every summer that I have worked at camp has challenged me and allowed me to grow in ways I didn't know I could. Everything that camp has taught me I take with me and apply to my daily life, throughout college, and now as a nursing student,” she said. “I was surprised how often in a clinical I relied on my camp experience when caring for patients and vice versa.”
In 2020, McGowan and her family will carry on their family tradition.
“It is not the waterfront or GAGA that makes Camp Foster special. It is the people who come and create what we call 'camp magic'," she said.