Help me understand LIT camp leadership programs
July 10, 2019 6:02 PM   Subscribe

I did not go to camp as a child, and had never heard of Leader in Training Programs. Where I work, a number of colleagues have teens who spend part or all of their summers as LITs at sleep away camps in cottage country. They teens don't get paid to work, in fact they pay for the privilege of working as camp counselors. My question is - how is this unpaid labor legal?

The amount paid to attend these programs seem to very, but the set up is consistent. Parents of younger teens (generally 14-17 years old) pay $750-$3000 depending on the camp and length of the program for their teens to work as camp counselors supervising and caring for younger kids. The hours they work seem to exceed the standard work week, maybe 10-14 hours a day, maybe one day off a week. I'm blown away by this loop hole in labor law. How does this continue to be a thing? It feels worse than an unpaid internship, and very problematic.
posted by walkinginsunshine to Work & Money (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
In Ontario, summer camps are exempt from the minimum wage laws. (Source. Additional source.) To be an accredited OCA camp, you also have to meet requirements for LITs - they cannot be counted in staff ratios, must be directly supervised while working with campers, etc.

I've been creating a (paid) training program lately and I was brought back to my own LIT training and I have to say...for me personally, it was worth every penny my parents and I paid, all of 30+ years ago. I don't think that's your question but I am happy to elaborate.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:17 PM on July 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Maybe I will elaborate a bit as I hope it's helpful. My camp worked like this for CIT training. You paid for one month but went for two.

For part of the day all summer, you focused on two 'subject' areas (mine were canoeing and archery) to complete any levels that would put you in a position to instruct in those areas the following summer, as well as ensuring that if you hadn't gotten your minimum bronze cross (lifeguarding) that you completed that as well. So in all those activities you were learning.

For the first month, CITs also had a lot of training, I think it was about 6-8 hours a week, on camp procedures, child development, communication skills, health and safety, etc.

We also prepared for a 9-day canoe trip where we were in charge of ourselves, but with two more senior staff along (leadership activity - we each had to lead the trip for one day including orienteering.)

So basically, we had a lot of activities where we were not at all functioning as staff. Then we did have other activities where we participated in planning games and activities, assisting in instruction, and sometimes minding a cabin for a half day or eventually a full day, while counsellors had their days off.

What my parents were paying for was all that learning and certification work, and the work I did contributed to the discounted rate. This was a fairly exclusive sleepaway girls' camp, privately owned. It was not as expensive then as it is now, but now a month is $4k. So if the same deal holds, CITs there now spend $4k for two months of CIT experience.

That's all kind of the business end. On a personal note, camp saved my life growing up, no joke. A consistent set of rules, and the learning I got on what's normal (and positive) ways to talk to children, deal with discipline issues, learning about Maslow's hierarchy of needs and reading through How to Talk So Kids Will Listen...not to mention the experience of my own strength of carrying cedar strip canoes through portages on a 9-day moving from a camper (receiving care) to a counsellor (providing care) was...transformative. So I am 100% biased.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:41 PM on July 10, 2019 [9 favorites]

At least in the US (and for Girl Scouts) there a requirements on adults to kids ratios based on ages (so little kids need more adults, etc). Kids 15 and under basically couldn’t be actually responsible for anything IIRC. So at that point they’re really not staff, just getting discounted camp (though the training warriorqueen describes is on point with my experience as well).
posted by raccoon409 at 6:56 PM on July 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

At the camp my children attended in the Adirondacks (NY), they were considered CITs. We paid about a third of what it would have cost to send them as campers. They slept in a bunk with other CITs, not with fully paying campers of any age. In the mornings, after breakfast, they would help out with the youngest group as coaches for sports or helping in Arts and Crafts. Mostly they would help a kid go back to the bunk for a bathroom break or pick a kid up who fell and was crying. They acted more as big sister/big brother than having any actual oversight responsibility in a legal or formal sense.

In the afternoons, they did group activities with the other CITs. They also had a much later bed time than the campers. They did get a "day off" but in the sense that they could not really leave the camp. They could lounge around in their PJs being teenagers (sleeping late, eating a lot, hanging out doing virtually nothing).

Most of the campers who came back as CITs were actually thinking about going into a field like teaching or coaching or outdoor work like rafting guide.

I do not see it as a loop hole in labor law. If anyone was exploiting anyone else in the relationship, I would say it was the CITs exploiting the camp owners. It was an opportunity for an older camper who had aged out of being a camper to come back and enjoy the summer being a teenager. The parents did not have to pay full boat. In exchange for a reduction in fees, they had to help out for a few hours a day in a not very taxing way and for most of them, they loved hanging out with the very young campers.

My daughter went to sleep away camp at the age of 6. My two sons started at 5. By the time they got to the age of being a CIT, I had paid the camp in the low six figures in fees. In some ways, being a CIT was a way to thank the camper and parent for the years of attending.

Further, most of the CITs I know can afford to pay the fees and it seems like feeling badly for the camper is feeling bad for the poor little rich kid.

I agree with warriorqueen that it was a great learning experience for my children. They learned about working, responsibility, compassion, and they had 7 weeks to be teenagers and do some growing up and relaxing before a year of high pressure high school.

I do think that the experience and the exploitation if there is any is very dependent on the camp and the owners of the camp.
posted by AugustWest at 9:37 PM on July 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

CITs are typically not replacing paid staff - more like an intern, they are truly “in training.”

Anyway, in the US, summer camps generally have to follow only “seasonal” employee laws which are very very lax (overtime kicks in after 14 hours, “sleeping time” is not paid even if you are on call and providing childcare during that time, etc). I don’t know the legal shenanigans but it’s also common to pay camp staff in a stipend, vs hourly wage.
posted by samthemander at 11:55 PM on July 10, 2019

Thanks everyone for the responses. Just a thoughts that came to as I read responses (promise not to threadsit)

- LIT seems to be touted as 'work experience' on resumes and college applications etc. This feels very problematic as wide swaths of the population are not in a position to pay for their kids to do these programs. Other 'jobs' you pay do ie. MLM are not highly regarded

- sounds like there isn't a ton of accountability expected of them? more like a a baby sitting gig where you have to pay to be there? again, this weirdly values caretaker jobs and what people working in those jobs are paid (which yes, is a bigger challenge)

- I see potential for mistreatment and poor conditions with these teens living in a grey zone. For example, jf they are not employees and they experience sexual harassment at camp - how does that get viewed? are they customers? could they get 'fired' for speaking out and not be covered by labor laws (in as much as labour laws help in those situations)
posted by walkinginsunshine at 3:21 AM on July 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Are private, spendy summer camps elite experiences? You bet. I was completely out of my class depth at mine.

Are LIT programs considered serious work experience? I think you have the wrong end of the stick for that if you're looking at the private camps. What they are is networking and a class marker. If you want to be an old-money WASP preschool teacher, yes, unfair work advantage!

I think the good class news from a work experience perspective is that experience as a LIT/camp counsellor in urban daycamps is, in Toronto anyway, very accessible for people (the city camps have a mandate to hire disadvantaged youth). I've run a program like that and it was great. Skills were similar. However, having Elite Camp on your resume is about cachet, not experience.

For harassment...sleepaway camps do come with risks. But again I think you are missing a bit that there's a deeper class thing here. Elite families are sending their kids for a particular experience, sexual harassment is not one of them...could it happen? Sure, just like in elite boarding schools. But the power dynamics rest in the wealth and privilege of the parents. LIT and kitchen boy caught necking? Kitchen boy is getting fired. The reputations of these camps are pretty fiercely guarded.

(My camp was all-girls, all female staff other than kitchen staff. Which opened up different sexual experience doors for sure.)


1. Expensive summer camps are networking opportunities.

2. Work experience in child minding is pretty easily obtained and not the cachet element.

2 a) Why yes I have heard Very Wealthy People complain that they have to pay student summer workers minimum wage because they didn't get paid when they were LITs and it was good for them.

3. The kids pursuing expensive LIT programs are probably not getting their labour exploited any more than helping mumsie plan the local galas. I would worry more about the kids working in the religiously run inexpensive/free camps, or Vacation Bible School day camps, than the ones paying bank for the privilege.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:31 AM on July 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I think it's wrong to think of being a CIT/LIT as "work". It is essentially a volunteer leadership experience that you do while you are at camp. Similar to being the president of the chess club, or stage manager of a local theater production.

The (day) camp I went to (any CRCAP veterans here?) made it clear by having CITs and then Junior Counselors. When you were a CIT, you were basically a camper with some added responsibilities. Cleaning up after lunch, helping with carpool, etc. If you had been a CIT for 2 years, you could apply to be a Junior Counselor, which was a legit job with W2s and orientation and all.

If anything happened to a CIT (and I think there was an injury one year) it was essentially the same as if it had happened to a camper.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:18 AM on July 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Different context, but I worked for free as a CIT one summer at a Boy Scout camp. I definitely viewed it as volunteer experience rather than leadership training. Doing so at a privately run, for-profit camp would have changed that calculus. It was an effective way to guarantee a place on the "paid" staff, which provided some middle-class networking. Definitely a faint shadow of what you'd get at New England sleep-away camps.

In subsequent years (mid-'90s) when I got $120 a week as staff, it still it felt volunteerish. I had no expenses though, and little opportunity to spend anything, so when it was time to go back to school I was only a little behind friends who summered in fast food or grocery stores.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 6:05 AM on July 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

My son went through CIT/LIT at day camp (YMCA camp, so way cheaper than most). I think of it as part-time camp, part-time internship. He loved it and now he has been a day camp counselor for two summers. It definitely made getting summer job there easier because they all knew him. So, training, including CPR, work experience, networking leading to a summer job. I thought it was a good deal, and he loves being a counselor.
posted by ceejaytee at 11:16 AM on July 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

I helped run a summer camp for a couple of years. It was a one-week overnight camp. The only staff that were paid were the cooks and lifeguards, everyone else was a volunteer including the doctor who was a former camper that would take a week of his vacation to come up.

I think the LITs paid the same as the other campers and spent most of the time doing their LIT activities and some time observing and assisting with different cabins. The LITs were definitely more campers who were too old to be campers than anything else. There were also CITs who paid a reduced fee and spent most of their time with their cabin but while they were supervising they were never doing it on their own, one counsellor had to be with their cabin at all times. If people were getting paid then we probably would have looked at paying the CITs something.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:36 PM on July 11, 2019

The descriptions for my local Girl Scouts camps are aren't easily copied and pasted, but they have a leadership program. I don't know exactly how the jobs are ranked, but there are campers, program aides of various levels of experience, CITs, interns, wranglers-in-training (they work with campers and horses), etc. The teenage girls are both campers and also learning skills. They're not putting any adults out of work -- they still need supervision.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:14 PM on July 11, 2019

> This feels very problematic as wide swaths of the population are not in a position to pay for their kids to do these programs

That's true of all kinds of things that go on college applications. Some people can pay-to-volunteer on mission trips, or take on glamorous jobs because they don't have to help support their families, or do internships, or be on select soccer teams, or take private music lessons and get into elite orchestras.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:16 PM on July 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

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