The Evolution of the Counselor in Training Program

The Evolution of the Counselor in Training Program

By Pati Egan

I recently saw a comment on Facebook where a former staff member was asking another former staff member what week her child was going to Camp to be a C.I.T. Before 2022, that was a pretty simple question to answer; C.I.T.s signed up and paid to participate in this two-week program. Like all vibrant and alive organizations, Ondessonk changes with the times and adopts best practices in the camping field. 

“The C.I.T. (Counselor in Training) Program is now a non-paid, three-week program.  Age: 16 years old or entering 11th grade.”

The Camp Ondessonk website (www.ondessonk.com) describes the program under the Employment tab:

“Do you have ambitions to work as a paid staff member at Camp Ondessonk or another youth development program? Join the Camp Ondessonk team as a Counselor-in-Training for three weeks of hands-on experiential learning. Participants will work closely with leadership staff members to discover and develop the skills needed to encourage, lead, and engage campers ages 8–15. Counselors-in-Training will receive the training necessary to assist in activities like challenge, horseback riding, woodscraft, and handicrafts, among others while serving in a position that directly contributes to the daily operations of Camp Ondessonk, an American Camp Association accredited organization.”

Let’s go back to the early years of Camp and take a look at the origins of this program.

The C.I.T. Program was two weeks long. C.I.T.s paid for the first week, and if they passed a comprehensive exam in their “major” subject, they would stay a second week and became C.C.I.T.s (Certified Counselors in Training). They would stay in their major area both weeks. This changed by the mid-1970s when in the second week, the C.C.I.T.s became Assistant Unit Leaders.   

This early C.I.T. application lists some interesting subjects one could major in – Aquatics, Horsemanship, Field Sports, Woodsmanship, and Administration & Guidance. After indicating their choice of major area, the C.I.T. could indicate a 1, 2, and 3 as their order of preference under the major area – most picked the traditional activities but Steve Rheinecker majored in Primitives! “I had a unique opportunity…I believe the only primy C.I.T., also the first C.I.T. to have a triple major: Nature, Woodsmanship, and Primys.”

Camp Ondessonnk Counselor in Training

Later on, by the 1970s, the major areas were simplified as: Nature (Forestry & Geology); Water Safety (Swimming & Life Saving); Small Craft (Sailing, Canoeing, & Rowing); Horsemanship (Western Riding & Horse Care); Archery; and Riflery.  The C.I.T. also picked two minors, one of which was Nature. Notice that Handicrafts was not a choice for a major.     

Camp Ondessonk Brochure Counselor in Training

I asked former staff from the 1960s and early 1970s to tell me what it was like to be a C.I.T. when they did the program. The program was tough and there was no guarantee you would pass and stay the second week.

Norb Garvey majored in Riflery. Both Archery and Riflery had scores you had to shoot to advance to the C.C.I.T. Program. This was not easy to do with the equipment Camp had at this time. Norb recalled that he and the instructor both knew which gun was the best, and he used that one for his test. Archery really had no bow that was the “best.” I majored in Archery and brought my own bow, because I wasn’t sure if Camp had a bow for left-handed shooters. I still had to find arrows that were straight and had three fletching.

Camp Ondessonk Rifle Range Counselor in Training

Gary Szymula, Peggy Hausman, and Ann (Martz) Barnum all majored in Aquatics. The C.I.T.s had to earn the Red Cross Life Saving Certification in one week. Gary recalls, “I had to swim a mile for the final portion of Red Cross Senior Lifesaving Certification for Aquatics. Ann recalls that she “had to pick up one of the male staff and carry him out of the lake. He was like 6 ft and I am 5 ft 4. I did it though and got asked to stay the rest of the summer. Best summer ever!”

Peggy Hausman recalls that “teaching lifesaving in one week wasn’t that hard, getting by the pre-requisite was hard…you had to swim four laps around Lake St. Isaac (1/2 mile). The rest was mastering the standard Red Cross Senior Lifesaving requirements. You had to be a good swimmer.”

Small Crafts C.I.T.s had to be proficient at canoeing, row boating, and sailing. Carol (Nelson) Klinger recalls that you needed to know all of the parts of each craft. You needed to demonstrate all of the strokes for each craft and know basic small-craft rescue.

Camp Ondessonk Sailing Boat Counselor in Training
Carol Nelson Klinger testing her Small Crafts C.I.T.s

Nature C.I.T.s had an interesting end to their week. Dan Hechenberger recalls that

“in 1967, I majored in Nature, with minors in Archery, and Woodsmanship. We had to show that we knew all of the hiking paths and identify about 30 trees via their leaves. On the Friday morning of our C.I.T. week, we had to take a pre-dawn hike alone. Mine was to Hogg’s Bluff. I remember feeling a very deep and spiritual connection with nature as the forest and its creatures came awake.” Dan remembers having inspirational Nature staff like Frank Pikul and Dennis Dusek.

Dan’s early morning solo hike destination

Horsemanship C.I.T.s were definitely a hardy bunch! They would rise at 6:00 a.m. and be ready to bring the herd in for feeding. I don’t think it was as organized as it is today. They had to learn all there is to know about when and how to feed, how to bridle and saddle the horses and remember the names of the horses and their personalities. Val Bauer recalls, “We had to catch, bridle, and saddle 80 horses, know their names and line them up according to personality. Loved it!” When I asked her what she meant by personality, she stated that some horses like to lead, some like to be last, some want to be in front of or behind their best horse friend. Being a field sports person – I had no idea! I just thought we got on the horse and rode!

Judy (Blase) Woodruff recalls that “Wednesday morning of C.I.T. week we had a lecture on gun safety and then had our “minor” day.  After breakfast on Friday, we took the gun safety test that we had to pass. Beginning at 2:15 p.m. Friday afternoon, we sat in the then Camper’s Lounge, and the first part of the Horsemanship test included naming the parts of the horse, bridle, and saddle. The second part included essay questions about diseases, habits of the horses, and safety tips. At 4:30 p.m., we all took the riding test – saddling a horse and taking it through its paces. All-in-all, it was an intense week of studying and practicing, not to mention the anxious Friday afternoon looking forward to Closing Campfire when we would learn if we passed our test and could come back the second week as a C.C.I.T.”

In addition to your major area, there was a five-hour C.I.T. Hike. Judy remembers, “We went to Pakentuck and then climbed Eagle Nest Rock. Jumping over crevices to Fat Man’s Misery, we then climbed down a sheer rock shaft and crawled along Billy Goat’s Ledge. We finally hiked to Pine Lake where we went swimming, and then RAN all the way back to Camp. It was quite the hike, thanks to then C.I.T. director Chuck Sullivan.”

A lot of training and knowledge goes into having a successful ride.

When I think that C.I.T.s were usually going into their junior year of high school and were able to retain all of this knowledge and skill in order to be asked to be on the staff the next year, it is no wonder that Ondessonk has always been staffed by exceptional people.

This early 1960s Souvenir Book picture shows boys in their C.I.T. uniforms.  I don’t believe the denim uniforms lasted very long. Most photos show the male C.I.T.s in blue or white jeans and a white western-style shirt.
These C.I.T.s are lowering the flags.  All C.I.T.s and C.C.I.T.s have traditionally been in charge of raising and lowering the flags each day. All were trained in proper flag etiquette.
Female C.C.I.T.s wore the same white western-style shirts as the boys but wore tan jeans. C.I.T.s had a different shirt their first week. 

The C.I.T. Program trained future leaders of Camp Ondessonk. The participants could acquire skills and confidence that could touch all aspects of their lives. 

Camp Ondessonk is not a stagnant place mired in the past but is an organization that works toward its mission: to provide Exceptional Outdoor and Spiritual Adventures Empowering Kids of All Ages. Camp can be a catalyst for change in each person’s life who decides being a staff member at Camp is worth the hard work it takes to join a strong group of proud alumni who will always call Camp home.

Click here to learn more about Camp Ondessonk’s history.


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