Contrary to common perception, most fifth graders in the Olympia School District don’t dread coming back to school after Spring Break. They look forward to it. The reason? Camp Cispus. But it’s not just the fifth-grade students that look forward to Cispus. The counselors are just as excited to spend the week at camp.

Every April, OSD fifth graders spend three days and two nights at Outdoor School in Randall, Washington. The students spend instructional time with their teachers and activity time with their counselors each jam-packed day at camp. The experiences these students have at Cispus stay with them for life.

Ian Hansen-Tilkens, current senior at Olympia High School, still reflects fondly on his time at Cispus. For Hansen-Tilkens, the anticipation of getting to be in a new setting was the most exciting part. “I was so ready to go out and live in the woods for a week,” he reminisced. For OHS senior Carly Becker, Outdoor School was the first time she was actually away from her family. “Looking back, I realize it was a really positive self-growth experience for me during that tough transition time from elementary school to middle school.”

Becker and Hansen-Tilkens enjoyed Cispus so much they volunteered to go back as counselors for a new batch of fifth graders this spring. While the campers focus on learning about the outdoors and working as a team, the counselors have their own responsibilities. Each day at Cispus, the high school counselors hustle their group of students to each meal, entertain the kids during recreational time, advise them when conflict arises and, the hardest responsibility of all, get the kids in bed on time. These obligations can add up to a hefty amount of stress and exhaustion for the counselors. But that doesn’t stop high school students from applying to be counselors every year.

Hansen-Tilkens decided to apply to be a counselor his junior year, because of his affinity for camp as a fifth grader. “I loved every aspect of it and it instilled in me a love for camping.” He enjoyed being a counselor so much, he joined the program again his senior year. He credits the success at outdoor school, for campers and counselors alike, to the amazing staff at Cispus. “Everyone is there because they want to be and you can definitely see that being around them.”

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This is what a typical cabin at Cispus looks like. One or two counselors and about ten fifth graders share each cabin area. Photo credit: Jordan Jekel

Becker’s favorable Cispus memories also inspired her. “I decided to be a Cispus camp counselor because when I went in fifth grade, it was such a positive and memorable experience.” She wanted “to be able to provide a similar experience to the fifth graders this year.” Senior Rachel Ballew chose to be a counselor because she loves working with kids. “I love being a role model and hopefully inspiring them to reach out of their comfort zones.”

It’s not just the campers that make Cispus great. The fantastic faculty at Outdoor School is comprised of the counselors, a high school advisor, the fifth-grade teachers from the kid’s home school and members of the Camp Cispus staff. Together, everyone works to make Cispus meaningful for all involved.

Becker’s favorite part of camp this year was the nightly campfire. “I loved hanging out with the girls in my cabin while we sang songs and watched skits put on by the other kids and counselors.” The campfires were one of Ballew’s favorite parts of Cispus this year, too. “Although we had to have the campfire time indoors, they were still a blast.”

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The main field on camp, right in front of the dining hall, is where the all-camp games take place each night after dinner. Counselors led games such as Fire in the Forest and Blob Tag are camper and counselor favorites. Photo credit: Ian Hansen-Tilkens

For Hansen-Tilkens, the all-camp game was one of his favorite activities, but he struggled to pick out just one best moment. “Honestly, I loved every part of the experience. The kids are great, the counselors are great, the songs are great, even the food is great.”

While lots of Cispus is fun and games, the counselors learn a lot, too. Hansen-Tilkens biggest takeaway is “it’s a lot easier to stand back and just let the kids figure things out on their own.” Through watching his ten fifth grade boys complete challenges and work together, Hansen-Tilkens was enlightened and shared that “just telling someone something isn’t teaching it.”

Ballew’s patience was also tested with her group of fifth grade students. “Anything you do, they take at least five more minutes than necessary to accomplish it – unless it’s eating dessert, they got that down,” Ballew joked. But the fifth graders really do move at a slower speed. As Ballew described, “In high school, you get so used to everyone moving and thinking at the same pace, it’s hard to adjust to the fifth-grade mindset.”

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Cispus counselors Carly Becker and Grace Korthuis-Smith, here at Curtain Falls, both attended Cispus as fifth graders and decided to return as counselors their senior year. Photo credit: Carly Becker

Becker felt the disparities between the fifth graders and high schoolers, too. As she adjusted to these differences, she remembered how to act like a little kid. “High school and looking to college has taught me, and kind of forced me, to grow up as I head to the real world,” Becker said. “But as I was hanging out with fifth graders for three whole days, I learned how to be silly and care-free again, which I think is something we lose as we grow older.”

Despite the challenges and stress, all three of these counselors would agree that being a counselor was a wonderfully rewarding experience. Cispus memories from their elementary days are now paired with new memories and experiences, equally as rich and rewarding.

Cispus is made possible through the support of the Olympia School District Education Foundation, fundraising wreaths sold by students and the Olympia School District.

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