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).
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.
“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.”
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.