LAKE WYLIE, S.C. Michelle Azzarello cried the day her family dropped her older sister off at summer camp.
She didnt weep because her sister left; Michelle wanted to go to camp, too. I remember thinking, I want to make a lot of friends, too! she says.
When she turned 8, Michelle got her chance, attending a two-week summer session at YMCA Camp Thunderbird on Lake Wylie. Simply put: It was magical.
So magical that she has spent the past 12 summers there.
Michelle, now a 19-year-old graduate of Providence High, is a junior camp counselor for cabin No. 1, a group of 7- and 8-year-old girls. Her goal: To be a positive role model, just as her counselors were for her.
Each summer, Camp Thunderbird hosts about 2,400 campers, ages 7-16, says Kaye Carraway, associate resident camp director. Managing that many kids takes 90 counselors, 60 junior counselors and 46 counselors-in-training, plus four year-round staff. Junior counselors must be rising high school seniors or college freshmen.
Being a camp counselor is more than job its a selfless commitment to others, says Bobby Harris, executive director at the camp. To be a camp counselor, you have to have a big heart and a willingness to love all children. Not everybody can do this.
Standing on a sandy strip of beach at the lake, Michelle straps on a life jacket before swimming out to a line of small sailboats tied together. She wiggles onboard one, alongside two campers and a fellow counselor.
For all 10 weeks, Michelle is stationed at sailing. She spends about eight hours a day on the water, teaching parts of the boat, how to drop a sail and how to maneuver.
As a motorboat tows the string of sailors to the middle of the lake for sailing practice, Michelle rattles off terminology bow, starboard, keel, cleat knot.
Once they get to the center of the lake, campers will be quizzed. When they pass, they are taught how to capsize their vessels and flip the boat upright in case of emergency.
Michelles campers pass, cheer, then promptly capsize their sailboat. Michelle climbs atop the keel and shouts camp songs in celebration, while campers stretch out on the bottom of the boat to sunbathe.
Michelle believes the key to being a successful camp counselor is listening to campers and remaining positive in all situations. Her kids have opened up to her about divorce, being bullied, moving homes even boys.
After a day in the sun, counselors round up their campers to wash up before dinner in the dining hall. That day consisted of mac n cheese, ham, sweet potatoes and Christmas treats a meal suited for the Christmas in July theme that week at Camp Thunderbird.
Camper Shannon Karr sits on Michelles lap before dinner, chattering about her day. As the 7-year-old describes a lanyard she made at arts and crafts, her nose begins to run. Michelle uses the bottom of her bathing suit cover-up to wipe Shannons nose, and the little girl continues her conversation without missing a step.
This is why I love camp, Michelle says, smiling.
Shannon traveled from Charleston, W.Va., and this is her first experience at overnight camp. She says she was homesick at the beginning of camp, but now she doesnt want to leave. Michelle says its not often she deals with homesickness, but that it can be the jobs most challenging aspect.
Ladders! Clear! Zipping! Zip on!
High in the tree canopy, junior counselor Wes McDonald, from Atlanta, helps campers yell zip line safety commands before sending them off a platform into thin air. From the ground, one can only see a pair of dangling tennis shoes and two small hands gripping a thick rope.
Before each camper can fly, Wes inspects their harness. He tugs loose straps to tighten and shifts helmets until they are secure. This is his 10th year coming to camp, so he knows the drill. He spends most of the day stationed at the challenge course: rock walls, high wires and zip lines.
Wes is always helping people out, says Daniel Gershen, whos in Wes cabin for 13- to 16-year-old boys. Daniel, 13, from Jay M. Robinson Middle, says the first time he tried to complete a high ropes course, he got stuck at the top of a tower. My face was completely white. But Wes encouraged me to not be scared.
As a camp counselor, Wes says, its important to remember the days of being a camper the fears, the excitement and the encouragement his counselors provided.
The first night of every camp session, Wes says, he establishes rules for the campers: Respect each other, listen and have fun. Each two-week session, he aims for his campers to receive the honor cabin award, which goes to the best overall cabin at camp. Wes cabin has received this multiple times this summer.
The campers are always watching their counselors, he says. We want kids to feel like they can trust us ... This is a place that will shape their lives.
A campers perspective
Daniel wants to become a counselor and figures hell need to develop leadership skills first. So he is working hard to earn bandana points, awarded for completing water and land challenges.
Shannon says of Michelle: Shes so nice and shes taught me how to be nice. To become a counselor, Shannon thinks, shell need to be able to talk to people and learn how to be a lifeguard.
In the fall, Michelle will return to Clemson University, where she is a sophomore studying medicine. Wes will start at UNC Chapel Hill. They will leave behind kayaking, rock walls, cabins without air conditioning and at least two campers determined to become just like them.