Ben Brannan is in a gratifying but harried position. He has the power to make -- or break -- one of the most cherished seasons a child has: summertime.
Brannan is a counselor at Camp Cherokee at Kings Mountain State Park near Blacksburg, the Upper Palmetto YMCA's resident summer camp. He is in charge of six 9-and 10-year-olds, making sure they brush their teeth, use their deodorant and have their daily devotion. But most importantly, he makes sure they wake up on time.
"The cabin who wakes up late has to wash dishes after breakfast and lunch," said Brannan, 18, a rising sophomore at Southern Methodist in Spartanburg. "I ain't trying to do that."
Such is the life of a counselor at Camp Cherokee, which has about 50 counselors and 94 kids ages 6 to 14 for each session. There are seven one-week sessions each summer and one session that lasts two weeks. Counselors are the campers' guardians, their surrogate parents, counted on to provide physical, mental and emotional support to kids who often miss their parents.
Campers are expected to abide by a certain code of behavior, such as keeping their elbows off the table during meals and singing during pow wow. Counselors deliver the necessary demerits if those behaviors are breached.
"If a camper puts his elbows on the table when we are eating, he or she has to take a walk around the building," Brannan said. "If a camper does not sing during pow wow, he or she takes a walk around the building."
Chet Tucker, director of Camp Cherokee, has been affiliated with the camp for 17 years. He was once a camp counselor, so he knows the rigors and joys of the job.
"There are definitely times when I would like to be in the cabin," he said. "But now my job is to put the camp counselors in the best position to do their jobs."
The life of a counselor
It was just under 11 a.m. on a recent day and the sun had started to bear down. The camp's first period began and the campers broke up into their assigned groups. Counselors are designated to head different activities, often separated from their cabin mates. For Brannan's group, first period is soccer.
Soccer is right up Brannan's alley. He has a soccer scholarship at Southern Methodist, so he dominated the field. Brannan showed no mercy and campers became weary from chasing him, while counselors struggled to keep up.
"Clearly a disadvantage," said one of the counselors.
As first period ended, the group headed back up to mess hall, the site of lunch and dinner. But for second period, it was the location of dance class. Brannan was looking forward to it.
"I love my dance class," he said. "Nobody likes to teach it, I don't know why. I like to dance."
As the second period started, "Bombs Over Baghdad" by Outkast blared over the speakers.
"Ya'll gotta get into it," Brannan yelled excitedly to his class.
The campers began an intricate dance routine that quickly lost two boys. The boys, apparently frustrated at their inability to perform the routine, took a seat. After a while, the music changed from rap to rock, as Van Morrison took over the room. The campers now were shagging, and Brannan was still heading the pack with his adroit moves and upbeat attitude.
"You don't wanna dance?" Brannan asked a visitor who was watching. "You have no idea what you're missing."
After 40 minutes of dance routines and steps, it was time for lunch. Ben met up with his cabin and they went to their table. It would be a while before their table was allowed to eat, but in the meantime, mail was delivered.
"This is the most mail I have ever gotten!" exclaimed Alex Alford, a 9-year-old camper in Brannan's cabin. "This is so cool; my parents really care about me."
After lunch, it was nap time for campers. But for some counselors -- Brannan included -- it was volleyball time. For other counselors, it was a moment to achieve down time.
"Volleyball is a a daily ritual for us," said Brannan. "But others use this time to chill out and prep for the rest of the day."
The counselor's delight
From dusk until dawn, for nine consecutive weeks, Brannan deals with a gamut of emotions.
Irritation? You better believe it.
"Oh, yeah," said Brannan, when asked if he ever get annoyed by his young charges. "But I remind myself that they are kids. I try to put myself in their place, and remember what it was like to irritate my camp counselors."
Brannan remembers those days well, since he was once a camper at Camp Cherokee. He began attending when he was 6. At 14, he started on the path to become a camp counselor.
It's habit and benevolence that brings him back every year. He earns $210 each week, and doesn't get paid until the end of the summer. He's in the woods for two months, away from his family.
But Brannan says seeing the children every year far outweighs the drawbacks.
"Every year when camp ends, the campers ask if they will see me next year," Brannan said as he navigated his way through the woods. "So I kind of feel obligated to come back."
Reid Hovis, a 19-year-old rising sophomore at Clemson University who is a childhood friend of Brannan's, has been a counselor for six years. Hovis shares Brannan's philosophy.
"You have to remember how it used to be as a kid and get on their level," said Hovis.
Ben's 21-year-old brother, Jamie Brannan, a rising junior at Winthrop University, is another long-timer at Camp Cherokee. He has been coming for 14 years, seven as a counselor.
"It's what we do," Jamie said. "It's fun to be around the kids, and we get paid for it."
Duke University pediatric cardiologist Rene Herlong has been coming to Camp Cherokee for 30 years. He began when he was 15 as a counselor. Now, he is the camp doctor.
"This is a very special place that makes kids and staff feel like very special individuals," said Herlong, who uses his annual two-week vacation time to serve as the doctor of camp.
"This is definitely my biggest and best vacation of the year," he said.
Fort Mill resident Perri Slader, 14, has been coming to Camp Cherokee for seven years. She hopes to serve as a counselor next year, citing Ben Brannan's influence.
"He's fun, outgoing, and makes camp a lot of fun," she said.
Brannan knows of no other way to spend his summer but in the woods of Camp Cherokee. Being around campers is his way of staying connected to childhood while also becoming a man.
"I've had a camper send me a pic of me and him in the mail," said Brannan. "I've even had one camper call me his best friend. Stuff like that makes this job special. "