Caring for those in Need

Turning Camp Staff & Volunteers into Caring Leaders

Cultivating a love of service and selflessness opens the window to a world that I want to live in, and one that provides experiences and memories of a lifetime for campers of every ability.

BY Laura Whitaker | March 2018 | Category: Schools, Camps & Residences

Turning Camp Staff & Volunteers into Caring Leaders

Extra Special People (ESP) immediately caught my eye as a nonprofit serving youth and adults of all ages with special needs. I was trained as a summer camp volunteer and, after just one year of service, I was tapped to run programs when our founder lost her short battle with cancer. At age 19, I was training and equipping my peers whom I was serving alongside.

Thirteen years later, Extra Special People has grown to provide after-school programs and summer, day, and overnight camp experiences for hundreds of children and young adults with special needs across Northeast Georgia. I’ve had the privilege and perspective to serve not only as a volunteer, camp staffer, and coordinator, but also to lead in training eager young university student volunteers and staff much like myself. As time has passed, I’ve seen a shift in the behaviors, attitudes, and expectations of volunteers; I have had to adjust and innovate our training programs to continue engaging and inspiring young adults so that they can serve children of all abilities and give them the best camp experience of their life.

My staff and I do not take this responsibility lightly. We are caring for young boys and girls with disabilities ranging from autism to traumatic brain injuries to Down syndrome and other severe physical and developmental disabilities.  But we recognize that these children deserve the chance to experience camp just as every other child in America does—without restrictions, limitations, or boundaries. Those opportunities to give our campers the experience of a lifetime come with the heavy responsibility of training up our staff and volunteers to serve each and every need while simultaneously offering a fantastic camp experience.

Since I am no longer running the programs on the ground as I did in my early years at ESP, my aim now is to train and motivate the Millennial generation to maintain the quality of our programming. Getting ahead of the curve is vital to training these young people to be great leaders and great people. I firmly believe that while collegiate volunteers need to enjoy their jobs and the camp experience, it is a job. It is employment. So, by teaching good practices—articulating insubordination, Human Resources-related issues, expectations, and ethics, I aim to provide leadership training that goes beyond their work at camp and into their lives as adults in society.

Brunch Boss

When training students, a tried and true tactic for the start to a successful session is food. College students are always happy to be fed and a favorite among the Millennial generation is brunch. So, as we feed their bodies in our breakfast training sessions, I aim to also feed their souls. By developing their character, I believe we are setting them up for success in life, and not just as a camp employee. The caliber of student is extremely high at our recruiting field of the University of Georgia. Kids are very book smart, but they are still kids. In order for camp leadership to expect them to both be passionate and empathetic while also great employees, we are responsible for teaching expectations in a way that they can metabolize. In our case, that includes interactive sessions and brunch foods.

Get Grit

The first session, entitled “Get Grit,” focuses on endurance, work ethic, and HR-related terms such as time theft and insubordination. While the HR topics are not the most fun to discuss, the expectations laid out ahead of time give employees the understanding they need to be successful with their responses and their time. We discuss social media and personal time, and I calculate if every camp counselor was on Facebook for five minutes every day during paid hours what that cost to donors would be, as well as the cost to campers. Millennials in this age range see social media as an appendage, and often do not realize that personal time is a cost to the relationships they are developing face-to face with their campers, as well as the overall organization.

The time and effort topic leads to the discussion about grit. Camp life is difficult, taxing, often hot and emotionally, physically, and mentally draining. The definition of grit is, “a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual's passion for a particular long-term goal or end state, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their respective objective.” Camp staff by nature are passionate, but the ability to hold on to that passion for a long-term goal (throughout the summer) is the mark of a person’s character. Talking through scenarios when it could be easy to give up and lose passion helps counselors prepare themselves for those moments.

Starve the Ego

The second training session, “Leggo My Ego,” includes waffles and focuses on a discussion of ego, humility, and growth. Pride prevents us from seeing our own mistakes. I stress the importance of recognizing, admitting, and learning from mistakes in improving ourselves. We ask that every employee owns his mistakes: when you mess up, fess up. This humility is vital to understanding our own shortcomings and therefore empathizing with the shortcomings of others. Our campers have abilities and disabilities of every kind. By understanding our own weaknesses, we can better understand the weaknesses of others—those we work with and those we serve.

Without pride, we are better able to approach situations with a willingness to learn. Our employees and volunteers love to learn, and we encourage them to come to us assuming they know nothing. This can be challenging because they are smart young adults who do know a lot, but accepting that they do not know everything about leading campers with special needs gives them the chance to open their ears and their minds to our training. Mentorship is an important aspect of growth and we encourage staff to begin the lifelong practice of finding and learning from mentors. If they soak in everything like a sponge, it miraculously creates a team that is bonded from the beginning under the same tenets and within the same culture.

Blame and belittling have no place at ESP, nor, I imagine, at any other camp in America. If employees and volunteers think they don’t have to take responsibility for their actions or must degrade co-workers in order to feel secure in themselves, the culture becomes toxic. It may sound utopian, but we want to build a culture at ESP that creates “the best you,” so that children and young adults can be served well. Finding a solution instead of placing or avoiding blame and being a mentor instead of belittling others offers growth and leadership for all. It cultivates not only a positive camp environment but a productive society beyond our campgrounds.

Feed the Soul

In Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, author Simon Sinek reminds us that selflessness is important, but taking time to care for one’s self is equally vital so that you can pour into others. Being a counselor can leave you exhausted, both mentally and physically. In order to feed the soul, I try to teach our employees and volunteers to carve out alone time to refresh and revitalize their tired bodies and minds. This is important for both the employees to implement, but also for camp leadership to value and lead by example.

Learning from another recommended read, The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, I encourage our team to find joy in everyday moments. The first day of camp is overflowing with excitement and adrenaline. By day five or six though, even the most enthusiastic and well-intentioned staffer can become depleted. Intentionally seeking out joyful moments, even in the mundane tasks and taking time out for oneself, can make or break a camp staffer and their overall work experience.

We implemented “Give 5” as an intentional practice of finding joy in the moment. Anyone can ask a staff person or volunteer at any time to list off five things for which they are grateful. They can be small, “My shoes are really comfortable/I had a really good lunch/Rey smiled at the pool today.” By introducing this concept at training and practicing it throughout the summer, we find it teaches everyone to keep joy and positivity top of mind.

I also urge our trainees to seek out constructive feedback and ask, “What could I do better in this situation?” Learning from other, more experienced staff and asking for feedback is a sign of maturity, not lack of ability. I think it’s important to stress that our young people should not be embarrassed of mistakes or questions. Rather, use them to grow their capabilities and experience, so that one day they, too, can be a mentor to others.

We have an incredible opportunity to train up tomorrow’s leaders as we guide campers through the best summer experiences of their lives. That is our ultimate goal - to train staff and volunteers to serve with success so that each and every camper experiences the fruit of that work in the form of an incredible week of camp. Training up the heart, as well as the mind and body, provides a transformative experience for our friends with special needs. Cultivating a love of service and selflessness opens the window to a world that I want to live in, and one that provides experiences and memories of a lifetime for campers of every ability.


Laura Whitaker began as a volunteer at Extra Special People in 2003. With her passion for enhancing the lives of children with developmental disabilities and her specialized education in this field, Laura was selected as the Executive Director in 2006. As Executive Director, Laura uses her leadership and management strengths to manage staff, oversee year-round programs and summer camps and raise millions of dollars for the organization. Her favorite part of the job is getting to hug the many children who walk through the ESP doors. For more information, visit and