Joe Cotton

Hi. My name is Joe, but most people call me JoeCo, and it’s pretty safe to say that Camp Chen-A-Wanda took over my life in 2012.

I was 21 years old and I took a year out from University before my final year to work in the film industry. When my placement fell through, I faced a tough year of trying to find work wherever I could and figured I’d try and get a summer job at Disney World, in Orlando, as part of their student exchange program. That also fell through, as I technically wasn’t a student at the time, so I ultimately didn’t qualify. April rolled around and I felt like I’d wasted my year. My mum and I were looking for summer jobs for me online one day; I was ready to just take the first thing that came up! When we came across an agency that places people at summer camps in the US, I called them up immediately and they told me to fill in a form and they’d get back to me. I wasn’t even sure what a summer camp was or what I’d be doing, but I filled in the form. I listed my skills, my background in scouting and working with kids. One of the questions even asked me to tell a funny joke – this didn’t feel like a normal job application, I thought. I sent off the form and they called me back an hour later to find out more about me and then accepted me onto the program. I was relieved more than anything, but it also dawned on me that I just signed up for something I knew absolutely nothing about. All I knew was that I was going to work with kids in America.

A week or so passed by and I got a call to say I had been placed at a camp, and that I had a Skype interview with the owner the following afternoon. I was nervous. The next morning I prepared myself for questions I thought I might get asked, tidied my bedroom, and dressed for an interview. I got an email from the owner about an hour prior to my call, telling me that they filled the role that morning and that they were sorry for the inconvenience. I felt deflated. A friendly girl from the agency called me right away and assured me that they were working hard to find another place for me.

Literally the next day, I got the call. A camp in Pennsylvania wants a Drum Specialist that can also do sound and lighting. A whole summer of playing drums in America, what could be better!? I stopped myself from getting too excited, from past experience, but I had the Skype interview. Then a second. Then confirmation. I’m in. I got nervous again.

On June 15th, 2012, I turn up at the airport to meet other first-year counselors so we could make the daunting journey together. They all seem nice, I thought to myself, I relaxed a little and we began our travel to camp.

Now, there’s not a lot of people at Chenny these days that knew 2012 Joe, but those who did will tell you that I wasn’t the loudest person. Unfortunately, I’d overcompensated for this by being super loud on the Chenny Staff Facebook page. Needless to say, when I turned up at camp, I can only think that I resembled a deer in headlights. It was late when we arrived. It was dark and this place was in the middle of nowhere. Everyone stood around talking and laughing, introducing themselves to each other. I’m pretty sure I was just off to one side, frozen, just watching. I’ll never ever forget how, all of a sudden, an arm swung around me, and the beaming smile of Kevin Breen hit me like a bus as he introduced himself to me as my Group Leader, and proclaimed to everyone that “this guy right here”, me, would be Counselor of the Year.

I wasn’t. Not that year, anyway. But that moment changed my perception of camp in an instant, and I knew I would be okay.

I never thought one summer would change my life, but Camp Chen-A-Wanda quickly dug its claws in. I still wasn’t the loud, confident, wacky counselor that you may think you need to be at a place like that, but I came to realize that that was totally okay… encouraged, even. I found other ways to make bonds with my kids; listening to them; chatting with them individually, not just collectively; sitting with them when they were upset or angry or homesick; teaching them how to make their beds and fold their clothes; even being pretty badass with a diablo. On periods off from the School of Rock, I’d go and find my boys and join in with activities. I’d even pass on my days off to go on their trips with them.

The feeling of being respected, loved, and looked-up-to, by what were total strangers just a few weeks beforehand, was just incredible.

Summer 2013 was a no-brainer and, honestly, I did much the same as I did the first year; I kept pretty quiet and I built upon the relationships I’d formed in 2012. This was also the year that Scott Arkin and Scott Levine started calling me JoeCo. Before long, no one called me just Joe anymore. I was still the drum specialist, I still did the sound and lighting, I still spent as much time as I could with my boys. I was even told in an evaluation that I needed to take more breaks, but it just didn’t seem like work to me and I didn’t want to take a break from having a blast. That summer I got Counselor of the Year, along with two others in my bunk, Scott Arkin and, Ben Arden – and I felt like a celebrity.

During the winter I thought about camp most days, if not every day. I just couldn’t wait to be back. I’d get texts from my boys saying they missed me and couldn’t wait to see me – I honestly couldn’t remember what life was like before Chenny. The craziest part was that I’d be going back as Head Staff. I was no longer able to sink into the background and just be Joe. I was JoeCo the Media Director.

Since I’ve been running Media – together with my amazing teams over the years – I’ve brought the standard of content that we produce (that Chenny parents wait up late at night to see) to a new level, and it’s something I’m very proud of and will continue to do as long as I’m here. This role has taught me how to manage people and stay composed under pressure. Having worked in media and videography roles back home, I had the technical experience, but nothing can really prepare you for the camp environment. It can get pretty hectic and tough at times, but it’s always rewarding in the end. (p.s. Late Night with Leahy will always have a special place in my heart!)

I’m still not loud, I’m still kinda shy and reserved, I still prefer to watch from outside than jump in head first. People often say to me that they’re intimidated by me at first and then they get to know me, and I’m so different to what their first impression of me was; and honestly, I’m still working on that. You’ve probably heard countless people quote the Almighty Gary Shields, saying “look after camp, and camp will look after you”, and I feel like I’m a prime example of that. I care about the kids, I care about the staff and the amazing friends I’ve made over my time here, and in return, I’ve been totally blessed with, quite simply, the feeling of belonging, and knowing that I matter to so many people.

I’ll never forget what camp has given me; brothers, sisters, connections I can take with me right through life, a once in a lifetime trip to California, I’ve even started a video production company, Oleka Productions, with Nathan, whom I met at camp, and we now plan to move to America full-time in the coming year. Good thing I didn’t go to Disney World, right? But, above all else, the bond I have with my boys is something I will cherish for a lifetime; watching them grow from little Middies, to now CITs and young adults this summer, there’s something kind of magical about that. My time at camp will end one day, but I know that it will never truly be far at all from my heart or my mind.

Camp Chen-A-Wanda took over my life, but it hasn’t really changed me; it’s just taught me to be myself.