Sep 13

How Volunteering Gave Me a Vacation, Saved Me Money, and Kinda Changed My Life

The Oar House on a river at a Summer camp in Alabama.

I sat angrily at my desk, tears threatening to spill down my face. I’d just been told that I wasn’t going to get to go on a luxurious press trip to California — a perk of my job at a glossy magazine in New York City — after all.


It wasn’t that I wanted to go to California, but I did want to go somewhere. I was 25 and had two weeks of unused vacation, with nowhere to go except my parents house less than an hour away. I had just enough money for a plane ticket, if I stretched my budget, but I knew that my lack of funds wouldn’t exactly lead to an amazing vacation. I felt angry. I felt stuck. And I felt super stressed. What my editor didn’t know, because I hadn’t told her, is just how much I needed to get away. My mom had recently been diagnosed with lymphoma, a type of cancer. Even though her doctors said that the type of cancer she had was a slow-growing, “good” kind, I felt scared and unsure of how to process that information.


Later that night, I thought about how much I hated sitting under fluorescent lights all summer long, and how much I missed the summers when I was in college, when I was a camp counselor. I loved having a concrete plan of what to do all day. I loved sleeping outside. I loved feeling productive and useful, the counselor who could fix anything from a broken lanyard to a broken friendship. And I wanted to know if there was a way to find that in my “adult” life.


So I researched potential camp opportunities, and found that plenty of camps were looking for one-week volunteers. I submitted my application to a camp for kids with cancer and their siblings. It was one way to feel more proactive in the face of my mom’s cancer. A few weeks later, I got an interview, background check, and acceptance. I used the money I’d earmarked for vacation to buy a cheap ticket to Seattle as a volunteer for Camp Goodtimes, a camp for kids with cancer and their siblings.   


As soon as I stepped onto the dusty traffic circle next to the main office, I knew I was worlds away from my fluorescent lit cubicle. I got my camper assignments — eight girls who were 11 and 12, to be watched by me and a co-counselor. Half had cancer, two were still in active treatment. The other four were siblings, kids who had brothers and sisters grappling with medical diagnoses.


I was intimidated. Everything was unfamiliar, even my name, which was now “Jiffy” instead of Anna. (Campers weren’t supposed to know our real names — a way to provide some separation between the world of camp and the real world.) And despite my past experiences, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to help campers going through an experience I’d never had. As a former camp counselor, I had plenty of arts and crafts and capture the flag knowledge. But I knew nothing about what it was like to face the kinds of illnesses these kids were up against.  What if they asked me medical questions? What if they needed more from me than I could give? And what if I wasn’t a good volunteer?


I shouldn’t have worried. At the end of the first hour, I realized these kids were kids. They weren’t here to talk about cancer, they were here to talk about sneaking sodas out of the dining hall, YouTube videos, and what they were planning to wear to the camp dance. They didn’t care about my frustrating career, they wanted to hear about how to find wish rocks — rocks with a lighter band of sediment circling their circumferences — along the length of the camp beach.


As the week passed, filled with messy “eat without your hands” breakfasts that resulted in kids and counselors alike dunking their faces in bowls of cereal, pool time, end-of-week skit planning, and special outings like a boat cruise around Seattle, I checked my laptop less during my time off. I laughed more. I felt more in-the-moment than I had in years. The kids in my bunk were facing intense medical challenges, but they still laughed, squabbled, and groaned when the dining hall served mystery meat for dinner.


One night, during an all-camp field game of Predator versus Prey — where campers and staff alike were assigned to be carnivores, omnivores, or herbivores — I sprinted fully into a medically fragile camper with an NG tube in his nostril to get nutrition. Once the camp nurse checked him out (he was fine) both of us started hysterically laughing.


At that point, it wasn’t about sick or well, camper or counselor. It was just two people having a human moment — something that had been missing in my email-sending, to-do list checking, meeting-attending career.


I wasn’t a perfect counselor. For every giggly moment, there was one where I shouted an expletive because I spilled nail polish on the floor. For every heart to heart, there was a “put your shoes on now!” snapped response. But to me, that authenticity — and ability to apologize immediately after — were emblematic of the fact that at camp, it was okay to admit imperfection. Doing so had felt impossible in my quest to climb the corporate ladder.


At the end of camp, I didn’t have any answers about facing my own mom’s illness. I didn’t have any life-altering revelations, and knew that I was going to walk right back into my meh job on Monday. But I did have over $200 saved from a week where I didn’t have to buy any meals, coffee, or entertainment. I had a larger perspective on the world. And I knew that there was a way to carve out pockets of soul-enhancing time in your life without changing everything about it.


I ended up volunteering at that camp for five summers. Every year, I looked forward to my week in Cabin 10, where money, job titles, and even real names didn’t matter.


In those five years, some of my campers died. Others ended up becoming counselors-in-training, complete with their own camp names. I ended up getting a new job with a more understanding and sympathetic boss. My own mom died.


In short, life happened. But one thing was certain: Every summer, I had one week where I could leave my wallet at home, where I could be a different version of myself, where I could push past my everyday to-do list and focus on interacting and reacting — and where I could count on playing an intense round of Predator vs. Prey.



I Tried Fostering a Dog, and Fell Completely in Love

My Volunteer Vacation Helped Make Some Donkeys Happier

11 Ways to Use Charity Apps to Give Back For Free (or Cheap)