Staff of the Year, 2003

The best of those who make camp tick year after year, as nominated by their peers, employers and employees.

Most camp directors agree that it’s not a camp’s philosophy that makes camp great. It’s the counselors, administrators, directors and other support staff holding the camp’s mission in unity and excellence that makes it great.

We received a number of nominations for 2003 Staff of the Year, and chose the following group who were honored for their hard work, and that special something that makes for a great camp staff person.

This year’s winners represent a diverse slice of North American children’s camps, from varying backgrounds and camp avocations. We’ve included the original nominating letter, which follows a short biography highlighting the winner’s perspective and philosophy that helps make them great camp staff.

We invite you to nominate someone who makes your camp great for the Staff of the Year, 2004 Awards. Go to and click on Forms to fill out a nomination form on-line. We’ll choose a group of winners after next summer and publish the results next November. Turn in your nominations by September 10, 2004.

If you have any questions, drop us a line at, call (830) 257-1012 or fax (830) 257 -1020.

John “Slim” Gillin

YMCA Camp Merrill M. Benson

“This is more exciting than having my letter published in Entertainment Weekly,” laughs Slim Gillin.

Apparently, the magazine wrote a derogatory article about Wesley Crusher, prompting Slim to defend the young Starfleet ensign. Captain Picard would be most pleased… Engage!

It’s Slim’s wry sense of humor and truly camp-like outlook on life that helps make him one of the camp’s most popular staff people.

When we spoke with Slim, he was back home teaching in Alaska at Hooper Bay, a Yup’ik Eskimo village. Originally from Waukesha, Wis., Slim began working at camps in 1977 at Phantom Lake Y Camp in Wisconsin until 1997, when he moved to Alaska to teach.

Once in Alaska, he met his wife, Mary Ellen. Slim says the kids in school thought Mary Ellen Gillin had a certain ring to it and worked feverishly to bring the two together.

With his summers free, Slim returned to summer camp work at YMCA Camp Benson, and as noted in the following nomination letter, made an immediate impact.

Slim says the secret to his success is “the ability not to be afraid to still be a kid… You certainly have to look at it as a serious job, but your perspective has to constantly be that it’s fun for the kid, and relate to kids in that fun kind of camp way.”

Everyone involved in camps knows all about that “fun kind of camp way” — it’s an outlook that translates to true enthusiasm and love for the kids.

“We need to respect them as individuals, and find out what it is they want from camp and try to help them focus on that goal. At school it’s such a feeding frenzy, but at camp all that goes out the window, so we need to help them understand that it’s a different environment and they can get as much out of it as they want, depending on what’s put into it,” says Slim. “It’s also good to have a progression; something that they can’t quite do this time around, but next year they have something to look forward to and work toward — whether it’s archery or the waterfront.”

Another aspect of Slim’s success is his attention to the kids after they leave camp and the resulting camper retention that helps foster.

“When the camp season ends, it doesn’t mean that you vanish. I always send a birthday, Christmas or Holiday card, and at the end of the summer just a short note to say, ‘Glad I met you this summer; hope you have a great school year,’” says Slim.

John “Slim” Gillin is an integral part of camp life here at YMCA Camp Benson. He is an assistant program director and one of those larger-than-life camp figures that no camper could possibly forget.

From the first meeting, campers know that Slim is a different kind of adult than they are used to. On opening day when campers first gather to go over camp rules, Slim makes the most of the little bit of down time by calling out the words to the Sponge Bob Square Pants theme song, which has every kid singing back to him by the end of the song. This is only the campers’ first taste of Slim, and throughout the week he’s everywhere.

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