Act As Though You Might Never Return

Former camper and staff member Ben Spillman returned to Manitou for the 2020 summer. He is currently a first-year law student at the University of Southern California.

During staff orientation of my first summer at Manitou as a counselor, I was asked to give a speech about “why I come back to camp.” I opened with a story. I had just finished my junior year of high school. I had been meeting with various college admissions counselors, looking to find someone who could help me navigate the college process. In one meeting, an admissions counselor asked me what I was going to be doing for the summer. “I’m going to be a camp counselor,” I told her proudly. She looked up from the transcript I had given to her, “Shouldn’t you be pursuing better professional opportunities? You can’t go to camp forever.” 

I paused and looked down at the microphone as I told this story to the 120 staff members in the dining hall. “We fired that college counselor.” The audience erupted into applause and cheering like I had just hit a game winner.

I started going to Manitou in 2009 as an eleven-year-old camper, flying 3000 miles from California to Maine. I was the new kid in my bunk—the “LA kid.” I quickly found my place and didn’t miss a day of camp for the next seven summers. As a junior counselor, I tried my best to corral a hyper group of thirteen-year-olds. I thought that my experience as a camper would translate perfectly to counselorship. Instead, I learned a unique lesson on the importance of flexibility and patience. A good leader and counselor, I discovered, is one who genuinely cares about his or her campers—and one who shows it.

I am currently testing this patience as a first-year law student, back in my home of Los Angeles after spending the last four years in Ann Arbor. Despite online classes, it has been one of the most enriching academic experiences I have ever been a part of. It is a competitive environment, and the reading assignments can be overwhelming, but my brilliant professors and ambitious classmates have brought out the best in me.

This past summer, after many summers spent succumbing to the “realities” of the professional world, the pandemic allowed me to return to Manitou with my five closest friends. The time away gave us all a new perspective and allowed us to better appreciate the lively atmosphere that camp delivers year after year. We made it our collective goal to try every activity that we had neglected to do there growing up. I made it my personal goal to make sure my campers did the same.

So, my piece of advice to newcomers and returning staff alike: act like you might never return. College League is Manitou’s crown jewel, but don’t forget to take your campers kayaking, go on the zip line, try yoga, break out the fly-ball machine, climb the rock wall, (attempt to) sail to the island, learn Catan, become obsessed with volleyball with them. Your campers will appreciate it and so will you. And I promise they’ll provide you with some entertaining quotes in the process.


  • Take a moment to consider Ben’s advice. Have you set goals for the summer? Do you want to change your habits?
  • Also, check out this article where the author shares five ways to be an outstanding counselor this summer.
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