For as long as I can remember, I have loved spending time with kids. During my teenage years it didn’t matter what setting we were in as a family - if there were younger kids around, I would always find myself playing pretend with them, teaching them silly games, or being a “human jungle gym”. Whether it was playing with my little cousins at our annual family reunions, leading games at church events, or teaching baseball to village children on a Kenyan mission trip with my family, I always enjoyed getting to spend time with kids.
Despite the joy I found in working with kids, I never really imagined that it would be something I could do as a job. Whenever people asked me “What do you want to be when you grow up?” it never crossed my mind that working with kids was a realistic career choice.
Being a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. Now those were real jobs. Those jobs took skill and knowledge and hard work and years of specialized education.
But playing games with kids? Anybody could do that, right? I didn’t want to just be anybody.
I had subconsciously decided my “real’ career had to meet two criteria: it needed to challenge me to solve problems and allow me to do something significant. Since I was good at math and lived near Purdue University, I planned on becoming an engineer (that is, if the Cubs didn’t draft me to play shortstop for them, of course).
Fortunately for me, an opportunity came along at the age of 17 where I was able to spend a summer as a day camp counselor. I took the job thinking it would be a fun experience where I could make a little bit of money and not have to work too hard to earn it. This all sounded perfect to my naïve teenage self. I thought it would be a piece of cake. After all, how hard could it really be to spend 10 hours a day playing dodgeball, climbing on the playground, going on field trips, and having snack time?
Was I in for a rude awakening?
That summer was an eye-opening experience for me. I found the job to be extremely challenging and profoundly exhausting – physically, mentally, and emotionally. I quickly discovered the immense amount of time, effort, skill, knowledge, passion, and hard work it takes to get the kids through the day. I discovered that being a camp counselor was like playing whack-a-mole for 10 hours straight, solving problem after problem as they popped up, and not having any idea when or where the next problem would come from.
But that summer, I also discovered something life changing. Despite how tiring the job was, and the fact that I do not remotely resemble a morning person, I was always excited to wake up at 5:30 a.m. to get to work on time the next day. It was exhausting, but it never truly felt like work to me. Not only was that job something I genuinely enjoyed getting to do every day and was something I was good at, but it truly made me feel a joy I had rarely felt before. Getting to see kids just be silly, use their imaginations, and discover more about the world around them each day always was and continues to be an indescribably rewarding experience for me.
I found my “real” job.
Despite my love and respect for this work, over the course of the past eight years of working in various roles at camps and afterschool programs, I continue to have family members, college and grad school classmates, and friends ask me questions along the line of, “It’s great that you love what you do, but when are you going to get a real job?” Often, career driven individuals would make observations to me like, “You can’t make a good living working with kids, so how long until you get a grown-up job?”
Those questions have always irked me.
Why is it that jobs in the youth development field are looked down upon?
Why is it that people don’t consider youth work to be a “real” job?
I guess I can’t really blame them for thinking that way – after all, I had the same idea in my head for years.
The irony of it all is, despite years of thinking otherwise, I don’t think there is any job that better meets my own criteria of “real.” I had decided that my career would need to challenge me to solve problems and allow me to do something significant – and working with youth passes both of those requirements with flying colors.
As a camp director and afterschool program director, I can attest firsthand that the challenges of the job are constant, ever changing, and often unpredictable. No two days are remotely the same. Whether it’s facing changing technology and the impacts it has on youth behavior and parent expectations, or dealing with inclement weather, or helping kids navigate the complex emotions and struggles of adolescence, or a plethora of other demanding circumstances – a new challenge is always around the corner. And these challenges require action and creative problem solving. Each situation that arises is as unique as the children involved, so the ability to use your knowledge, relationships, resources, and prior experience to solve problems is an absolute necessity. And I love the opportunity to work with my teammates to find solutions to whatever challenges come our way.
My “real” job also needed to lead me to do something “significant.” When I wanted to be an engineer, I always pictured myself designing a building or a bridge that would be standing long after I had passed. But now I truly understand how tremendously significant the field of youth work is. Over the course of ten years in this field, I have worked with several thousand kids. Sure, building a bridge would also make a significant impact on the lives of thousands of people, but the potential (and personal) impact there is in working with kids is incalculable.
The simple act of telling a kid that they have value and that they are loved changes their perception of the world for the better, and that is all the significance I need.
One thing I think about often is a job where the back of our staff shirts said, “I Change Lives.” Looking back on the years I spent there and in the various roles I have had since, I can proudly say that phrase was true for me and continues to be. I could not have found a better career path for myself, and I cannot wait to see how many lives I have the opportunity to change in the years to come.