For a junior camp counselor at the Howard County Recreation and Parks' Summer Sensations Camp, the to-do list is varied. There are tables to wipe down, campers to corral, snacks to prepare. But at the moment, the job is: dance.
The Ellicott Mills Middle School auditorium is booming. The deejay turns up the "Cha Cha Slide." Everyone is hopping and clapping, laughing and sliding across the auditorium.
"I love helping kids," says Zoe Williams, 13, an Elkridge Landing Middle School student who was a camper before becoming a junior camp counselor.
In addition to the dance parties, she spends a lot of time on the basketball court showing off moves. "I learned some cool stuff from them, too," she says, including making a Jacob's ladder with yarn.
Designed to bridge the gap between campers and full-fledged counselors, the junior counselor, or counselor-in-training, programs are offered at many summer camps, including McDonogh School, Glenelg Country School, JCC in Owings Mills and Beth Tfiloh in Reisterstown.
The camp fees for counselors-in-training are usually significantly less than those for traditional campers. For teens not old enough to have full-time summer jobs, but too old to participate as campers, these programs provide structure, but also time for play, whether it's leading a game of Capture the Flag or helping with puppet making.
"It's fun for all of them," says Ann Combs, manager for volunteers and special projects at Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks.
"The kids love the junior counselors. They're older, but not too much older."
Most are 13 to 16 years old. And many of the junior counselors or counselors-in-training are "graduates" of the very camps where they're now working.
"I remember the junior counselors from when I went to camp," says Madison Paige, 13, a Mayfield Woods Middle School student who was a junior counselor this past summer.
Now, Paige and her friends were the ones looked up to by young campers -- the ones who lead the Scatterball games in the gym, who provide the competition in air hockey tournaments, and who fill the water squirters on fun days.
"There's this one kid who greets me every day," says Nathan Baumel, an Elkridge Landing Middle School student. "He wants to show me what he's doing, tell me about his weekend. ... I like how happy he is to see me every day."
And while the teens say they enjoy being junior counselors, there's also an element of responsibility. Initially, says David Ceaser, a Long Reach High School sophomore, his mom pressured him to become a junior counselor. "I like kids. I really do," the 14-year-old says. "But I don't like waking up at 8 a.m. every day."
Josh Ayres, a Howard High School freshman, and his 13-year-old and 14-year-old peers discuss the challenges of getting a group of kids to cooperate.
"Sometimes you have to say things more than once," says Ayres.
At Glenelg Country School, one of Justin Luna's jobs is to plan games for campers during a free period. He's learned to tailor activities by age and preference. And he's learned that plans aren't always well received.
"You have to have a plan B if that doesn't work out," he says. "You have to think of something else."
Formulating contingencies and improvising? These are the life lessons taught by the CIT program, says Ieva Bolsteins, the CIT teacher at Glenelg Country School.
"They're managing expectations of teachers, of campers' parents, of campers," she says. "They're learning."
"It's an intense day," Bolsteins says. "If they're not tired, they haven't done their job."
Still, there's time for swimming and training sessions geared toward the CITs. There are even field trips to places such as Six Flags and Terrapin Adventures.
The programs are very popular. In Howard County, for example, there were nearly 140 junior counselors last summer.
Many of the camp counselors are graduates of the junior program. And because they've had to interview for junior counselor positions, they have job interviewing skills, says Shawnte Berry, Volunteer Services and Special Projects Coordinator at Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks.
The junior counselors also can earn volunteer credit for school programs with those requirements, Berry says.
"They do a little bit of everything," she says. "It's a big variety."
Parents like the balance of fun and work, and that the programs offer an introduction to responsibilities such as being on time and collaborating with others. Plus, camp involvement ensures their 13-year-olds won't spend the day playing video games.
"I think it teaches life skills -- how to relate to kids younger than they are ... and patience, which is really important in life," says Angela Hopkins-Luna, a physician and mother of junior counselor Justin Luna. Combs has watched junior counselors mature, too. One teenager she remembers in particular napped on the stage during his workday and frequently drew complaints from staff. But by his third year, camp staff was requesting him.