Camp Counselor Reflects on Experience Working With Foster Child

I lost it when Marcus peed in the girls’ cabin. It was the end of a twisted climax of a week that I will always associate with pure, unbridled pain.

Marcus had been building to this all week. This eleven year old had become my sole responsibility for the week he was at camp, and he was systematically breaking me down. My directors had told me to focus my efforts on him for the week he was here, because as a first year counselor I could use the experience of dealing with a child like Marcus. Yet in the seven years I’d been a camper here, I’d never encountered anything like him. Here was a child naturally skilled at wreaking havoc; harassing people and wildlife was an art form for Marcus.

Before this week, all I’d wanted was to be a counselor. I wanted to support children and teach them to trust themselves, just as this camp supported me as a camper. I was ecstatic, and spent hours learning the best methods of managing children. But what about when your camper is fifty feet up a climbing tower and unstraps himself to taunt you? I realized that nothing I learned in the workshops had prepared me for Marcus.

My drive to help others succeed was gone. After days of being positive with Marcus, negative reinforcement became my best friend. It was all I could do to keep him in line.

Then, the finale. I’d been setting up for dinner when another camper told me that Marcus had peed inside the girls’ cabin, and then ran away into the forest. I led a four hour search party to track him down, and spent an hour cleaning the desecrated cabin. I was broken. 

During the last two days of the camp session, I paid as little attention to Marcus as possible. We only spoke when he created problems. When Marcus got on the bus to leave, I started breathing for the first time all week. But as he boarded the bus, he said something I never expected: “Ethan, thank you for this week. I had so much fun.” That moment still feels as raw today as it did two years ago, and I still can’t put what I’m feeling into words .

No one was waiting for Marcus back in Seattle. His foster parents had abandoned him while he was at camp; CPS picked him up a few hours later. I still question myself about how I acted that week. Was I justified in how I treated Marcus? Or was I simply too frustrated to dig deeper and help him, support him? I tell myself I was only fifteen and it was how anybody that age would handle it. Maybe that’s true. But the idea that Marcus is still out there and living a life in which everyone treats him the way that I did, still haunts me and it will for a long time to come.