It’s rare that what you really loved doing as a child becomes your vocation as an adult, but Jamie Jannusch is one of the lucky ones.
“I fell in love with camp from an early age,” says the 41-year-old Wisconsin native. My parents sent me to a Lutheran camping system in Wisconsin from the age of 7 to 17, so I spent 10 years as a camper. It truly had a profound effect on me.”
So much so that Jannusch majored in youth programming and camp management at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and has worked in summer camps since graduating. In February 2018, she joined the staff of Pretty Lake Camp, where she works to make sure the 800 campers that attend the free, nonprofit camp each summer have a similar experience.
“The community of camp gives you a sense of belonging,” Jannusch says. “You know you’re not just an odd duck or someone with a disability or someone who doesn’t belong. All of a sudden you have a hundred people in the same setting that are your friends, and that sense of connecting with other people has truly transformed my life.”
How did you get where you are today?
When I went to college, I really struggled trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I initially went as an art student and was planning to go into graphic design, but after my sophomore year I was like,
“This major is not for me.” At the time, a former coworker of mine was working at a camp year-round in California, and I realized that working at a camp was a career option. The funny thing is that the college I was attending had a natural resource program with a camp minor, which was changed into a youth programming and camp management major. It was a perfect windfall of things in my favor.
Otherwise I don’t think I would have had that light bulb go off, saying, “Yeah, you can make this a career.”
I graduated in 2003 and was hired at the Wisconsin Lions Camp, which serves children and adults with special needs, specifically (those who are) blind or visually impaired, deaf or hard of hearing, (have) intellectual disabilities or educational autism, (or) diabetes. I was program director for three years and then served as the assistant camp director for 10. At the end of 2016, they were restructuring, and part of that was eliminating the assistant camp director position, so I took a year away from camp trying to figure out if I wanted to stay in camping, working with the American Cancer Society as the assistant manager of Hope Lodge in Marshfield, Wisconsin, a free lodging program for cancer patients and their caregivers.
After experiencing working with a national nonprofit, I realized, nope, I wasn’t done with camping and wanted to get back into it. I did a nationwide search, and that led me to Pretty Lake. The next thing I knew, I had virtual interviews and was offered the position. Before I accepted, I said, “I want to see the place,” because everything was done virtually, since I was about six hours away. I drove here one weekend, scoped it out and decided to take the job.
What do people say when you tell them what you do?
I get the question “What do you do when it’s not summer?” a lot. I start preparing for the next summer. I truly believe in feedback, so each week during the summer I have staff fill out feedback forms on the camp session that just ended and I give them feedback as well. There’s a debriefing with staff about the summer, and I meet with some of them throughout the course of the year, saying, “This is what I’m thinking. What are your thoughts?” I attend conferences. I’m involved in the Local Council of Leaders for the American Camp Association for Michigan and stay involved with the KYD Network (Kalamazoo Youth Development Network), participating in some of their programs.
Camp doesn’t just stop because kids aren’t here. We’re always looking for what might be the next new thing that we can add, because of many of our campers wouldn’t get the camp experience if they didn’t have Pretty Lake, and we want to be able to provide a similar experience, if not the same experience, that all the other camps provide.
How has the pandemic affected Pretty Lake Camp?
Normally we would be doing overnight camping, and campers would be sleeping in the cabins. But with the pandemic, last year we operated with the City of Kalamazoo Parks & Recreation Department and brought kids out here for two hours a day, or we went into the city to one of their sites, bringing camp to kids for two hours. We also did camp-at-home kits in backpacks for our campers who had already registered by the time we suspended registration.
We made the call early this year to proceed forward with day camp — the campers will come out for a full day and then return home at night. One of my earliest mentors always said that a good camp can be run anywhere, including a parking lot. It’s about people. It’s about the connection and that sense of belonging.
So how does someone who is at camp all day get away from it all?
I actually live on camp property, so not only do I work here, but I live here full time. I like to travel and visit family in Wisconsin. I love to golf, and I like to hike. I read and listen to podcasts. I like to be busy, like being on the lake, whether it’s here or elsewhere, kayaking or paddleboarding, spending time with family and friends, having a campfire.
That sounds a lot like camp.
(She laughs.) The work that I do is so rewarding, and it’s a lifestyle that’s not for everyone. I think that connections are key to life. What makes your life worthwhile is not about the places or the things that you did, it’s the people.
— Interview by Marie Lee edited for length and clarity