For Jem Sollinger, Summer Camp Is A Year-Long Job (And Joy)

It’s May. For a substantial population of Westport kids, that means one thing: Camp is around the corner.

Every summer, tweens and teens head to the woodsier parts of New England, New York and (less often) other states. They spend a few weeks doing all the traditional camp stuff, and plenty of modern-day activities that keep kids coming (and coming back).

Camp Laurel, in Maine.

But campfires, counselors — and campers — don’t fall from the sky. Camping is a year-round business.

And for much of the year, some of that business is conducted not in the wilds of Maine, but a pair of 2nd-floor offices on Main Street. Both Camp Manitou and Camp Laurel have space in Brooks Corner.

Jem Sollinger is the director of (and a partner in) Laurel. The 7-week sleepaway camp serves boys and girls ages 7 to 15, with a wide array of programs and experiences.

It’s a great career for the Westport native. An All-New England soccer pick and captain, 4-time All-State skier, and member of the choir in Staples High School’s Class of 1988, he too is a Laurel alum.

His camp experience also includes Mahackeno and the Intercommunity Camp in Westport, and the Soccer Farm at Pomfret School.

Jem first realized he could make camping a career as a senior in high school. The owner of Packer Soccer Camps in New Canaan gave him a job — and plenty of autonomy. He learned personnel management on the fly (including the challenges of bossing 2 of his best friends).

Laurel was his 3rd “real” job. After graduating from Union College he was a teacher and coach, then had a stint with an advertising and event management agency.

Then Laurel hired him as assistant director. He’s been there ever since. Laurel is now a family affair. His wife Debbie also serves as director and partner. Their oldest daughter was a Laurel camper; their youngest 2 still are.

For Jem and Debbie Sollinger, and their 3 girls, summer camp is a family affair.

“Director” is a catch-all title. Jem’s responsibilities include managing logistics, anticipating and solving problems, and setting every camper up for success. “We keep them safe, while encouraging them to take risks, learn new skills, and build a sense of self,” he says. He collaborates and partners with parents too.

Jem is also in charge of counselors, administrators and behind-the-scenes operations staff. He empowers, supervises and coaches all of them.

Much of his autumn-through-spring work in Westport — where he has a full-time staff of 6 — involves staffing. Some come back every year. But many are college students, so he is often in hiring mode.

Jem and his Westport staff recruit at colleges across the country. They use social media. They encourage current and former staffers to tell friends and teammates about their own growth experiences as counselors.

It’s not easy finding “warm, genuine, enthusiastic” college-age counselors — and in today’s market, it can be especially difficult.

“The pressure to get an internship is great,” Jem acknowledges. “There is definitely value to that experience.”

But, he says, “the life skills, relationships and memories gained from a summer working as a camp counselor are incomparable.”

Some of the Camp Laurel staff.

Westport has been fertile ground. Jem has hired a number of Staples grads.

Right now, he’s finalizing his summer staff. He’s talking to people who just graduated from college, or whose internships fell through, or who realize that a couple of months helping kids grow in the woods is a lot more intriguing than commuting to New York.

He’s doing plenty more, of course. Moving the entire operation from Westport to Maine — and getting the 50-acre property ready — is in itself a full-time job.

But if any energetic, self-motivated, hard-working, outdoors-oriented, kid-loving college-age people want to join him, Jem is happy to chat.

Click here for the Camp Laurel website. Email: staff@camplaurel.com.

FUN FACT: Jem Sollinger is not the only Staples High School alum with a full-time job in camping. Corey Frimmer of the Class of ’92 is director of Camp Wicosuta in New Hampshire.

6 responses to “For Jem Sollinger, Summer Camp Is A Year-Long Job (And Joy)

  1. Hello muddah.. hello faddah here I am at camp Granada. It is very entertaining and I think I’ll have some fun if it stops raining.

  2. Kris Latchford

    Look at you, Jem! Nice piece, Dan. Makes me wish i was a college-age again…!

  3. Fred Cantor

    I can’t say I ever worked for Jem but, knowing him as I do, I imagine he would be a great boss to have. My advice to college kids: for many of you, spending your summers working in an office will probably be part of your life for many years to come. Having a summer job at a camp such as Laurel sounds like a great experience that won’t be available to you for much longer.

  4. We are a Westport Camp Laurel Family. We have 4 kids and all of them have gone to Laurel for years. Our three oldest kids have aged out and our youngest one is still a camper. Each one of our kids has had an extraordinary experience at Laurel — and I give all the credit to Jem and Debbie. Camp Laurel is a special place. Jem and Debbie are amazing and their staff, facilities and programs are top notch. My kids have learned and grown so much as a result of their summers at Camp Laurel. They have made life long friendships and they all continue to be very tied to the Camp Laurel family. I can’t say enough about Camp Laurel. Thank you Jem and Debbie!!

  5. Mary Cookman Schmerker

    I’m a Staples grad and can say that every summer when I was in High School I was a Counselor at Camp Asapetuck. It was a great experience. Once I graduated from College I went to work for the Girl Scouts first in Hartford, then Rockland County, New York and finally in Bergen County, N.J. At each location I was either a Camp Director of a day camp or Assistant Director of an Established Camp. There are practical things you learn that I think can’t be learned in a office setting. ( I also worked in an office setting in New York City for a major Oil Company) So, I recommend that students seek Counselor jobs. It’s fun exciting and you will learn lots of people skills in the process.

  6. George Llorens

    Great article Dan on a great camp and an even better family….the Sollingers. If you want personal care for kids, Jem and Camp Laurel checks all the boxes. He knows the name of every single camper….that should tell you the attention to detail and care. Keep up the good work!