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CIT interns help at MALT camp

ANOTHER CAMPER SHOWS Ella Bennette-Fizsimmons a toad he found while snooping about. One of the benefits of the counselor in training program is that with more supervisors watching campers, smaller groups of campers can more safely participate in the activities they most prefer (for Fitzsimmons, that’s looking for “weird, creepy mushrooms”). Independent photo/Steve James

The experience of learning how kids act is a big one I would have enjoyed as a teenager. We try to build in the week time for (the counselors-in-training) to take leadership if they are interested.
—AmeriCorps member/MALT intern Celeste Venolia

MIDDLEBURY — Ella Bennette-Fitzsimmons proudly held a muddy, blinking, red creature in her hands. The 7-year-old grinned, identifying her new-found friend as a salamander.

As a camper at Middlebury Area Land Trust (MALT)’s summer day camp, Bennette-Fitzsimmons has plenty opportunity and encouragement to safely look for reptiles and “weird, creepy mushrooms” — her favorite activities at camp — because of a newly set-up, volunteer counselor-in-training (CIT) program for middle and high-school students.

Created by AmeriCorps members and MALT camp counselors Naomi Cutler and Celeste Venolia at the request of MALT Executive Director Jamie Brookside, the CIT program is meant to give additional support to the 5-to-8-year-old campers as well as be an educational experience for the young counselors-in-training.

“The experience of learning how kids act is a big one I would have enjoyed as a teenager, and we try to build in time for them to take leadership (roles) if they are interested,” Venolia said.

It also makes life easier on Cutler and Venolia.

“It’s fantastic how easy it can feel to be a counselor. I can take a break, read, get myself water — in those transition moments it’s incredibly helpful,” said Cutler, who has been working with MALT since Sept. 2020.

Cutler said she was “expecting the (CIT) program to be amazing,” but she didn’t predict how successful it would be at attracting counselors.

Cutler and Venolia were hoping to find three or four high schoolers who wanted experience working with children and loved being outdoors to help support the summer camps, which are all about providing kids the opportunity to play in and connect with nature. Surprisingly, through social media posts, they found and hired 17. Each CIT is set to work two to three weeks of camp, which adds up to three CITs working with the kids each week.

“It turned out fantastically,” Cutler said.

In addition to having help, Venolia said one of her favorite parts of working with the CITs is overhearing their “beautiful conversations with the campers, noticing the small details: ‘Oh, your backpack strap is twisted.’”

Middlebury Union Middle School student Juliette Hunsdorfer said volunteering with MALT has been a great way to spend her summer, especially because it’s hard to find a job at her age. The 13-year-old CIT from Weybridge helps sanitize hands and facilitate playtime. “We do some games – we do sharks and minnows,” she said.

Beatrice Porter, 15, said that working at MALT appealed to her because she was once a MALT camper.

“I realize how difficult I may have been as a camper,” Porter said.

She now better appreciates “just how much work counselors may have had to put in to keep us in line and make sure we were all safe.”

Porter, a Middlebury resident and Middlebury Union High School student, noted that working with the campers is her first summer job.

“It’s been good,” Porter said when asked about how manageable her workload is at the camp. “It’s a little different waking up so early in the summer,” she added.

The work does take some getting used to.

MUMS student and Weybridge resident Margaret Orton, 14, was on her first day on the job last Monday. She found working with the young campers to be fulfilling, but also said that the youngsters could at times get a little rambunctious. 

“There’s more crying than I expected,” Orton said. “They’re five- to eight-year-olds so a lot of sobbing,” she said.

Orton figured out earlier in the day how to deal with sobbing children.

“Surprisingly: distract them,” she said. “Say, ‘there’s a fun stick over there!”’

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