MOUNT DESERT — On Monday a young camper was hanging out in the “chill zone” at Camp Beech Cliff, taking a break from his schedule.
“It’s not a reward. It’s not a consequence. It just is,” Camp Director Matt Cornish said about the chill zone. “There’s definitely more campers that come to camp with more specific needs.”
The break was part of a plan the camper, who had been having a difficult morning, made with Camper Support Specialist Corrie Hunkler, a licensed social worker. Her position is a new and, according to the camp’s leadership, necessary addition to the camp’s staff this season.
“More and more there’s a rising number of young people who want to be able to have that camp experience but may not be able to cope very well with the environment of camp,” said Cornish.
Camp can be loud and high-energy, with transitions happening all the time.
“They might need a little bit extra to be able to have a feeling of success come the end of the session.”
For the last five years, Hunkler has worked as a social worker in the Moosabec Community School District and Cherryfield Elementary School, a school independent from the district. As she does in the schools, Hunkler provides support to camp children and staff with emotional, developmental and social issues that come up throughout the day.
She originally applied to be a counselor at Camp Beech Cliff for the summer but her qualifications landed her this new position.
“It’s a pilot [program],” said Executive Director Debra Deal, explaining it has been four years in the works. “I can’t imagine not doing this in the future.”
Maine Community Foundation provided $5,000 in seed money to begin the pilot program, according to Deal, with additional funds offered by a private donor.
An increase in anxiety, depression and related challenges among children has “become such an important issue nationally,” she added. “We’ve got to work with these kids because the consequences can be really profound.”
Hunkler not only supports the campers, but she works with members of the staff as well, especially the younger ones.
Each week the camp sees about 265 children from kindergarten to age 15. At 15, kids can become counselors in training (CITs). Once they complete a year of training, these same teenagers can become junior counselors until they are 18 years of age.
Young members of the staff can still be in the process of addressing their own emotional and social growth, Cornish said.
“That was another big reason we wanted to make this position a reality,” he said. “We wanted to be able to be able to continue offering new skill sets and new philosophies for our staff to be able to utilize.”
Learning to how respond to a child struggling with social or emotional challenges has been useful for the whole staff, Cornish said.
“Especially when you’re dealing with a lot of young adults, sometimes high school students, who don’t have a lot of experience with this level of thinking. Being able to get some tips from the pros is a very valuable resource and a valuable asset.”
For many, the camp is a stepping stone for their future, not just a summer job.
“I think it’s interesting because a lot of the people who work here are really interested in entering education or a social work field,” said Hunkler. “So I’ve been really enjoying being able to teach them how to do it themselves and working with them on — if this is happening, these are some things — and kind of building that skill with staff as well.”
While a social worker on staff is new for Camp Beech Cliff, Hunkler was introduced to the concept more than a decade ago when she worked at a summer camp in the Boston area.
She can still recall the social worker at the camp that served children from the city and how he was a key presence. Of the number of children at Camp Beech Cliff, 60 percent live in the Mount Desert Island area year-round and 40 percent are visiting for the summer.
“This is something that hits across the board,” explained Deal, who with her staff consulted schools and other camps in researching whether this was the right step to take. “We’re seeing more and more that’s being better identified.”
Deal also explained how camps affiliated with larger organizations often provide a network for children that can involve a social worker or outreach programs.
As a private organization, it makes more sense to bring a social worker on staff to address camper and staff needs. In previous years at the camp, children and families were given recommendations for services in the community to address social and emotional needs.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website, employment of child, family and school social workers is projected to grow 14 percent from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average for all occupations.
According to the National Association for Social Workers, social workers in schools can help prevent social mishaps before they happen. Police officers in school, the group says, sometimes do more to address issues after they arise.
For Hunkler, being proactive is an essential part of her job in working with staff and children.
“So I’m not always needed,” she said. “I like being needed but I also want everyone to have the skills. I want the kids to have the skills so they don’t need me. I want the staff to have the skills so they don’t need me … kind of building that capacity within.”