What It’s Like To Be An International Counselor At Clearwater Forest

This is a guest blog post and personal account written by Mikko Väänänen, Finland native and 2-time International Staff Veteran of Clearwater Forest.

My story of becoming a camp counselor began back in 2010 when after I completed my confirmation camp. This was my first ever experience at a camp in general. I was 15 and I was so tremendously inspired by my counselor that I decided I wanted to make such an impact on others, as they had made on me. For 3 years I worked as a camp counselor in Finland, and  was able to positively impact youth during my time there.

Fast forward to early 2017, I’m 21 and looking for a summer job. By pure coincidence, I came across an advertisement that said “Would you like to work as a camp counselor in the USA?”, and I immediately realised what I had stumbled upon. I had just found a way to go back to being a camp counselor! I signed up immediately.

The following months were incredibly stressful for me, getting my Camp America profile and interview completed. Then one day this delightful young lady named Cassie contacted me. She was the first person to reach out through Camp America and ask me for an interview. It was midnight in Finland and I was just about to go to bed when Cassie sends me a message asking me to do the interview immediately rather than the following day. I got dressed and I went for it, and Cassie offered me the job on the spot. I accepted it the next day and it was set. I was going to the US and I was going to be a camp counselor at Clearwater Forest!

When I arrived in the US I was terrified. It was the first time I was ever traveling alone abroad and I was so far away from home on top of that. Then I met with Cassie, Charlie and Rachel, who picked me up from the airport, and I knew that I was safe. On our ride up north to camp, I couldn’t stop thinking about how surreal all this was. I was on a different continent, nobody spoke Finnish or Swedish, and I was pretty overwhelmed by all that was going on.

When we arrived at Clearwater for the first time, I realized how much bigger summer camps are in the US than what I was used to back in Finland. Clearwater was just massive and it had so much to offer from a variety of water activities to a high ropes course! And on top of that, I hadn’t stayed in cabins quite like the ones at Clearwater, so it was a new experience in that regard as well.

Afterward I met with some other counselors-to-be, they made me feel very welcome from the start. After some introductions and meeting the rest of the staff, it was time for our staff training, which was a bit difficult for me the first time around. I was surrounded by 20+ people that I had never met before and there was so much information that I needed to grasp within 2 weeks.  I was absolutely terrified of what it would be like when all the campers arrived.

My first ever cabin at Clearwater was with Sr. High boys and I couldn’t have asked for a better co-counselor, Gregor. He did so much to help me get comfortable with being a counselor and become familiar with camp life at Clearwater. During our first week, I will still full of questions. Each time I bumped into Cassie, I had at least 5 different questions to ask her, but by my second week I had improved so much that I was down to just 3 questions each time I saw her.

Another great part about my first summer in the US was experiencing my first ever American 4th of July, which I spent in Stillwater Minnesota with some of the other Clearwater counselors. It was a lot of fun, but without a shadow of a doubt the best part of it was when my host Ginny took us swing dancing. It was such a wonderful experience, we received 10 minutes of teaching before stepping in and just going for it. That one night of swing dancing was such a big deal for me. I was introduced to East Coast Swing and Lindy Hop, and those two dances have been a passionate hobby of mine ever since.

The rest of the summer just got better and better. I met so many new people from various countries and I met a lot of great campers as well. After I had such an amazing time and overall a great experience in the US, I couldn’t resist coming back for a second year. The next summer I got in contact with Camp America and Cassie again and I decided to make my return to Clearwater Forest.

All the frustrating paperwork that comes with the applying process was like nothing this time around. I knew exactly what huge reward there would be after I completed all of it. This summer I graduated with my degree in accounting and the following day I got on a flight back to the US. Adult life and responsibilities would have to wait, I had campers to counsel!

I arrived in Minneapolis once again and there was Cassie waiting for me. What a happy reunion that was. I was so comfortable this time around on the drive back to camp. The moment I arrived back at Clearwater, all the great memories from the previous summer started rushing to my mind. I don’t think I was ever as happy just walking on a grassy field as I was when I took a walk across the play field for the first time in a year.

There were a lot of new people this time around as well as some old friends from last summer. Some of the new counselors had been campers in my cabins, units or quest groups last summer, and I was so happy that they had made the decision to become counselors. By the end of the summer I was proud beyond words about all my former campers being such wonderful counselors.

My second staff training was a piece of cake, I knew so much already, and I really had time to get to know the new counselors and mentally prepare for the campers to arrive. I was so excited to see so many campers return this summer as well. As a counselor, it really helps when you know your campers well.

This summer went a lot smoother than last summer since I came to Clearwater with a lot more knowledge and experience. It was just a blast to be back! Nowhere else can I be my own goofy self quite like at Clearwater Forest. For a second summer now, I’ve met great people from all across the world. And I connected with even more amazing campers that taught me probably even more than I might have taught them.

One of my favorite parts about being an international counselor at Clearwater was participating in the International Night we had each week on on Thursdays. Getting to sing to everyone in Finnish and to have the opportunity to teach them about my home and my culture was really something special. Especially since I am the first Finnish person a lot of people at Clearwater have ever met. I also got to bring some of the camp culture from Finland with me to Clearwater and that was just a happy moment for me as well.

As my time at Clearwater Forest came to an end for my second summer, I had an important realization. I had made that same impact on some of my campers that had inspired me to become a counselor in the first place all those years ago. It has been an absolute privilege to be granted such an opportunity to help and to inspire so many campers of various ages.

Clearwater Forest has given me many invaluable things. Friendships that will likely last a lifetime, a passion for swing-dancing, a really interesting topic for conversation for sure, and the experience of going across the world to make a difference in the lives of others. I couldn’t be happier that I decided to do the late night interview and accept the job Cassie offered me all that time ago.

Clearwater Forest will always have a very dear and special place in my heart and I will never forget the experience I have had there.

Mikko “The Finland Guy” Väänänen

Clearwater Forest Camp & Retreat Center