Making a difference through camp


The first organized American summer camp started in 1861. One hundred forty-four years later, camp is still a summer staple for many young Americans and impacts not only campers’ lives, but also those who run these apple pie institutions-the counselors and the owners.

Camp Kinneret and Sunny Skies Day Camps are two traditional camps based out of Agoura. Camp Kinneret was originally founded in the 1950s and Sunny Skies started in the ’70s. Both camps were run by teachers who were looking for summer opportunities to work with children in nontraditional environments. In 1992, the founding owners of Sunny Skies retired from the camping business and sold the property to Harold Gordon, the camp director and longtime administrator.

“The best thing about running a camp is the ability to truly make a difference in people’s lives,” Gordon said in a recent interview. “We see this in a child’s smile and eyes when they accomplish something for the very first time, when they feel safe trying new things and taking safe risks because they are in an environment that is positive and supportive.

“For some children, this is the first time they get on a horse, go off a diving board or climb a rock wall. For others, it is having a counselor help them reach out and make a new friend.”

Cali Camp, a day camp in Topanga Canyon, which just celebrated its 50-year reunion, still provides children with an abundance of outdoor and indoor activities. In 1976, former schoolteacher Saul Rowen bought the property known as Big Rock Ranch located in Topanga Canyon. Rowen said the best thing about operating a camp is to see the children grow up each summer and watching them return the following year.

West Los Angeles resident and educator Stacey Sackin was once a camper at Cali Camp from 1978 through 1980. Her experiences as a camper were so profound that she worked as a counselor from 1981 until 1996 and then from 1999 to present. “Being a counselor at Cali Camp is great because you have a great impact on children’s lives,” Sackin said. “Seeing the kids accomplish something after awhile is gratifying.”

Scott Nickerson, a businessman from Pacific Grove, Ca., recalls how being a camp counselor was one of the best things he could do growing up. “Working with children is playing for pay and allows the adult to continue living life with a childhood enthusiasm. This alone is a great reason to be a counselor at a summer camp.”

Nickerson’s 11-year-old daughter, Esme, has been going to Cali Camp and other camps since she was a toddler. “I remember crying one year for leaving my counselor whom I grew attached to that summer. It is hard to leave when you won’t see them for a year,” said the fifth grader.

Camp counselors must undergo an intensive interview and selection process before they get permission to supervise children. Working in a camp can be a learning opportunity for anyone interested in a teaching career, camp directors said. Camp directors are accustomed to working with staff members of various experience levels and quality camp programs provide staff members with at least 30 hours of pre-camp training. Most camps require staff to be college age or older and have training programs for high school students.

“The worst thing for me is having to let someone go when they have not lived up to the expectations we have for them,” said Cali Camp’s Director Pam Hawley, who has been at the camp for 29 years and worked in all capacities. “We expect quality and train the staff to be our representatives with the children. When they can not live up to this, we work with them to change their behavior, but if they can’t, we have to say goodbye.”

Having experience working with children is important in becoming a good camp counselor, camp directors agreed. Accredited camps should require prospective counselors to obtain letters of recommendation from respectable people in the community. It is also important that counselors have an interest in the camp’s curriculum, whether it be a traditional, academic, specialty or faith-based camp. In order to make the job more worthwhile, camp directors suggested that all counselors have a great deal of patience and good listening skills when dealing with campers, parents and their superiors.

More about camps and becoming a counselor can be obtained by logging onto or

Camp contact information:

_ Cali Camp

1717 Old Topanga Cnyn. Rd


__Sunny Skies Day Camp


__Fame 2005

Performing Arts CAmp

Pepperdine University


__Camp Keystone

2854 Triunfo Canyon Road

Agoura Hills