Alexa Fretwell and Spencer Combs just graduated from high school and college, respectively, and are ready to embark on the next phases of their lives.
But first, they decided to spend this summer as first-time counselors at Camp McLean, which both attended and loved when they were younger.
“I really liked how they had it structured,” said Fretwell, 17, who especially enjoyed the art class. “I liked our trips to the Water Mine, Medieval Times and even the Baltimore Aquarium.”
Combs, 21, who like Fretwell also had a sibling who attended the camps, said he liked the program’s hospitality and its staff’s friendliness. The camp helped him learn to socialize and sparked interest in what would become his college major.
“The science class that we used to have, and a few other classes, really gave me the push I needed when it came to learning about basically the fundamentals of the natural world and physics,” he said. “It gave me an insight that I’m more hands-on than most other kids would try to be. It gave me a learning curve about my strengths and weaknesses.”
Fretwell graduated from Langley High School this year and this fall will attend Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. Combs just graduated from West Virginia Wesleyan College with a bachelor’s degree in applied physics.
Camp McLean is a series of three two-week-long sessions in June and July that caters to age groups 3-4, 5-6, 7-8 and 9-10. There are 18 children per age group in each session, for a total of 216 participants, and available slots sell out quickly each year, officials said. This year’s camp ends July 29.
McLean Community Center holds the camp at a Fairfax County public school each year. Fretwell attended several camp sessions at Churchill Road Elementary and Combs participated when the activities were held at Chesterbrook Elementary.
As counselors this year, Combs is working with 5- and 6-year-olds, Fretwell with children ages 7 and 8.
The community center held this year’s camp at Kent Gardens Elementary School, which has a sizable outdoor athletic area where energy-saturated children can run off some steam.
Inside, the one-story school is surprisingly large. Its corridors display students’ artworks, and placards on doorways identify rooms in English and French, as Kent Gardens is a language-immersion school.
Like the other counselors, Combs and Fretwell spent a week before the camp learning how to administer first aid, including cardiopulmonary resuscitation and using an automated external defibrillator, and detect whether children have been injured or abused.
“We also learned a little about conflict-management skills,” Fretwell said. “Obviously, when you have younger kids, conflicts are bound to happen.”
Camp McLean usually provides specialized instructors for art, music and physical fitness. The counselors arrive by 8:30 a.m., start the day with a staff meeting, then conduct the program, wind up activities by 4:30 p.m. and finish the day with a staff debriefing.
Activities at the school generally last about one hour per session, with breaks for lunch and playground time, and the schedule changes daily for each age group, Fretwell said.
The counseling jobs are paid summer positions, although Combs said he would be willing to do it for free.
Fretwell said one goal she had for her young charges was to get them to socialize with everyone, not just their own groups. Combs said he would like the students to develop good habits and encourage their individuality.
After the camp ends, Fretwell will spend a week preparing for college, then lounge on the beach with her family in Florida before fall classes start.
Combs will move on to graduate school and said he wished to honor his late grandfather, who like some other relatives (and Camp McLean) pushed him to become the best version of himself.
Andrew Carter, general manager of the McLean Community Center’s Old Firehouse Center, said Fretwell had been great working with the camp’s children and Combs had been a go-to person when it came to video matters.
Some former camp participants have returned to serve as counselors, but it’s fairly rare, Carter said. The backgrounds of Combs and Fretwell stood out when hiring counselors this year, he said.
“When I saw their résumés, seeing how they had grown up though the community center and wanted to give back to the programs they grew up, [hiring them] is something I wanted to do,” Carter said.