Between the years of 1990 and 2014 there have only been two summers that Paris Ball, Shrine Mont Camps director, hasn’t been on the mountain. Her history with the camp program dates back to her first year as a St. George’s camper at age eight. She returned each summer until the age of 15 when she “aged out” but returned just two years later to work as a MAD Camp counselor. Over the course of a few years, Paris worked as a MAD Camp counselor, MAD program director, lay chaplain, and Art Camp director before landing at Mayo House as assistant program director in 2006. By 2007, she was overseeing the administration and operations of the summer camps program.
While the camps program is in full swing in the summer, it takes a full year to get ramped up for next year’s program. Starting in mid-October of each year, Paris begins making hires, working with Shrine Mont to make sure camp facilities are ready, creating advertising and publications, and visiting churches around the Diocese to share the energy and excitement that is Shrine Mont Camps. All while overseeing other Christian formation programs like Richmond's Grace-on-the-Hill intentional Christian community.
I had the opportunity to sit with Paris in Vienna House and ask a few questions about her camp experience.
Those who have spent much time around her know that Paris has an almost frenetic, definitely magnetic energy about her. She moves fluidly from acting like the prototypical enthusiastic camp counselor; to being the serious, anchoring presence she needs to be in the mania that can sometimes takeover as camp plans change and adjustments are made; and just as easily steers back into total ridiculousness – laughing hysterically and often speaking in hyperbole. In our interview, she was measured, thoughtful, and sometimes taken by laughing fits in even and interspersed doses.
We had only just started the interview when a couple of counselors walked into Vienna with a myriad of requests for Paris. One camp needed walkie-talkies, a parent called and needed health forms, and one camp’s activity had been cancelled due to weather. This continued throughout the entire time we spent talking, which was just 30 minutes. The camp director job is nonstop.
KM: What is your favorite memory as a camper?
PB: When I was 14 I did the three-day hike and it was really hard and it was not something I thought I could do, even while I was doing it. It was so exciting, and I gained a lot of confidence in myself.
KM: What is your favorite memory as a counselor?
PB: I loved being a counselor. I loved sharing a cabin with a bunch of girls. especially all of the feeling checks.
KM: What is your favorite part of being director of Shrine Mont Camps?
PB: I love the busyness of it. I love the unpredictability and the troubleshooting element of it. I really, really love the chance to work so closely with so many really wonderful people. I am inspired and in awe every day of the work that the counselors and program directors and directors do for these camps. It’s really a joy to watch them work and help them along.
KM: Why do you think it’s important for kids to come to camp?
PB: I think that kids get offered something at camp that they may not be offered anywhere else: a chance to really experience the world and themselves independent of their family and their school friends. They get a chance to explore who they are. They get a chance to discover who God is in their life and who God is calling them to be in a place where they are loved and welcomed fully. For a lot of kids, going to camp is their first time doing anything independent of their parents.
KM: What do you think is the value of being a counselor?
PB: I think that being a counselor is a really great chance for young adults to take on some real responsibility and learn a lot about who they are. We’ve had counselors who have been surprised both at the things they are good at and the things that are challenging to them. Being a cabin counselor requires patience, requires kindness, and requires you to learn how to keep kids on track without being a disciplinarian. It’s a 24-hour-a-day job that asks that you commit fully to a team. All of these skills are skills that are needed in the workplace, even if they look different in an office setting.
KM: What’s a typical day like at Vienna House?
PB: There is no typical day. The only typical days I have are when we do camp openings and closings, which constitute about 40% of the summer. The rest of the time I am coaching, providing debriefs for camps, talking to parents on the phone and providing more in-depth training to staff. With over 150 campers on the mountain on any given day, I’m also closely in contact with our nursing team at all times.
KM: I imagine coaching at Shrine Mont Camps is different than it is in other settings.
PB: [Paris is now walking around the first floor of Vienna cleaning and organizing as she talks.] Partly yes and partly no. There is a period of time in the beginning of the summer during staff training week that is pretty straightforward teaching where we try and use a lot of different teaching methods. But at the end of the day staff training week is where people come together to learn what is expected of them as counselor, and to be equipped with some tools that will help them as counselors.
Throughout the summer, I’ll often do in-service training when a camp is between sessions. The director and I will discuss beforehand if there’s a specific tool or technique that their staff either lacks confidence in or just to further develop their skill sets.
KM: Do you have an example?
PB: Example... [Paris pauses and looks up] A good session had just ended for a staff with, for the most part, completely new counselors. We heard clearly that the cabin counselors did not feel completely comfortable with redirecting or managing behaviors of the campers when the campers were doing something we maybe didn't want them to be doing. So we spent two-hours between sessions talking about camper management, but even though the counselors said they didn’t know what they were doing, the truth is they were already doing well. We helped them test out different phrases or terms they could use with campers so counselors could know what kind of things are okay to say and not to say at camp, and just to know that what they had been doing was good and they could keep doing it.
We talked about doing things like putting your hand on the shoulder of a camper who is acting out, or had the counselors all test out their “Is That a Good Idea? Face,” the look that you give that is mainly neutral but slightly negative that you can give when a camper is pushing the limits to let them know what they’re doing isn’t okay; it’s something you can do before you even have to talk to the camper about adjusting.
Debriefs are also an opportunity [to teach]. But if you look at what I do the most over the course of the summer, the teaching I do is mainly in one-on-one meetings with directors, but also with program directors and other leadership. I think that I spend, on average, an hour and a half with a director each week during camp reviewing how things are going, how their staff is, reviewing things that are coming up so the director can anticipate things – problems or considerations they need to make. I spend time coaching directors before they have to have difficult conversations with their staff. And that is all informal. We'll go for a walk around the lake, we'll sit on my front porch. That’s one of my favorite parts of this job, but I love both the formal and informal teaching. I love cultivating a relationship with a director and being able to celebrate accomplishments with them.
KM: What are some of the challenges of running nine camps with a staff of over 120 people?
PB: One of the challenges for me is to remember to have fun at camp. I find a lot of the work to be fun, but it can be easy to go from task to task and I sometimes have to stop to remember to go to one of the camp dances or drop in at the pool party.
KM: Camps have a tradition of wearing ridiculous clothing to dances and other events, sometimes with guy counselors in dresses. What does this say about Shrine Mont Camps?
PB: I think that part of the dressing silly at camp is just part of the fun and the other part is being confident enough in yourself to be wacky. With dances in particular, dressing in crazy clothing underscores how a dance is about the whole community having fun rather than a chance for couples to spend special time together. We encourage kids to dress up in ridiculous clothes as well.
KM: What’s one camp tradition that you’ve loved seeing continue on this summer?
PB: [Paris sits down on a couch across from me, holding a cup of tea I didn't see her make.] Camps doing things together. The Fourth of July, in particular, all the camps that were in session had a giant Independence Day party, worshipping together, playing field games, pool party and bonfire. All the kids at all the camps got to be together.
KM: What’s something difficult you’ve had to deal with this summer?
PB: A few weeks ago they were calling for really disastrous weather. We spent days preparing for it, cancelling camping trips we had going out, rearranging schedules, making back-up second and third option plans, making sure staff were prepared for all possible outcomes and then it was…sunny.
KM: What’s the funniest thing that’s happened this summer?
PB: That’s impossible to pick. Everything’s been funny this summer. It was really funny to watch Mike Wade [St. George’s director] slam a cake into Cullen Dolson’s face [MAD program director]. Mike was walking around with some cake that was left over from a camper’s birthday. Cullen asked over the walkie-talkie if anyone had headphones that he could borrow. Mike responded, “I do, but what are you going to do for me?” Cullen responded, “Anything you want.” Mike said, “Well I have a cake in my hand, I want to slam it into your face.” So later Cullen was leading evening games with MAD Camp and Mike Wade walked up without saying a thing, slammed the cake in Cullen’s face, handed him the headphones, and walked away. That was funny.
By Kendall Martin
Kendall Martin works at Mayo House as the assistant to the offices of communications and transition ministry. She graduated from James Madison University with a bachelor's degree in English.
She worked previously as assistant editor at the Center for American Places and as a production/circulation manager at Briefings Media Group. Kendall and her husband, Brandon, have two sons, William and Noah.
Spreading the good news of Shrine Mont Camps into the Valley of the World.
The View from the Mountain is written by a rotating cast of staff writers and contributors.