For many teens, summer vacation means sleeping late and combing the beaches of Long Island. However, some of Mineola's young citizens have found a different way to occupy their time during a five-week stretch from July to August - working with youngsters by providing leadership as well as someone to look up to.
The Village of Mineola Summer Recreation Program has been a longstanding summer tradition in the community. It is a sort of camp where children have the opportunity to share in the company of others their own ages while participating in a wide variety of activities from athletics to drama to arts and crafts to board games.
On the last day of the program, after a group of children who have an interest in drama performed a rendition of New York, under the direction of head drama counselor Eileen Cahill, the children began to say their goodbyes to the counselors they had spent over a month with.
As the children and the counselors ate their ice cream bars and the warm summer sun beat down on Wilson Park, many children asked the counselors to sign their summer recreation program shirts; questions abounded as to whether some of the counselors would be back next year. It is apparent that a close bond had been formed between the children and the counselors. The children had gotten used to the counselors' companionship and direction while the counselors enjoyed their time working with the children.
"It gives you a chance to be a kid again," said Marcus Cavalli, who has been a counselor with the program for five years, about the enjoyment he gets out of working during the summer recreation program.
While the main focus of the program is to ensure that children have a fun and pleasant experience, those that make it possible are the summer recreation program counselors. Summer Recreation Program Director Suzanne Skaflestad, who is also the executive director of Mineola Youth and Family Services, is in charge of hiring counselors each year for the program. A total of 43 counselors including three head counselors (one each for drama, arts and crafts and first aid) are selected to take on the all-important responsibility of ensuring the children an enjoyable summer experience.
"We look for counselors who have an interest in working with children, who would be good for children and who would be committed to the children," said Skaflestad. "They are giving up a part of their summer, which says a lot about them. It's really important that you depend on your counselors."
During the five-week summer recreation program, counselors begin work as early as 8:30 a.m., which means there is no sleeping until noon. But, ask some of them about their jobs and they will tell you that it's worth it to be able to work with children and make an impact on their lives.
One of the counselors, Ashley McAree, who will be entering her junior year at Mineola High School, just finished her first summer as a counselor for the second grade children of the summer recreation program and already knows she wants to return next season. "I really like everything because the kids are so cute," she said.
Working at the summer recreation program gives Ashley and others a sense of accomplishment during what otherwise might be summer months that drag on. "When I don't have a job, I feel lazy. I want to be doing something. It makes the summer go by a lot quicker," she said.
Just like the children in the program, the counselors too have a wide variety of interests in their lives that they get to share with the children. McAree participates in lacrosse and soccer and another counselor Kristina Zunno, who will be entering her senior year at Mineola High School, stars in three sports - basketball, volleyball and softball.
Zunno, who attended the summer recreation program when she was of age, felt it was time to be a counselor and has cherished her time working with the fifth graders. "The kids are so awesome," she said. "The majority of the time, I have so much fun."
Besides giving her firsthand experience in working with children along with her work as a counselor for sports camps, being a counselor also has kept Zunno's mind off of her upcoming senior year of high school. "I'm always moving. It keeps me busy," she said. "I can't go to the beach every day like I wanted to but it's definitely worth it."
During the summer, Zunno learned to have patience with children, a lesson that will serve her well as a future elementary school teacher. "I absolutely love kids," she said.
Joe Cerulli, another senior at Mineola High School, is also in his first year as a counselor at the summer recreation program. When Cerulli isn't pinning opponents as a high school wrestler, he enjoys working with kids. "I was just like them when I was little," he said.
Cerulli realized that he still has a lot in common with the youngsters including his love for sports, although now he is old enough to teach them important lessons such as sportsmanship. Cerulli is even looking into someday being a coach.
Skaflestad is in her second year as director of the program. She is ably aided by her assistant Debra Morse and head counselors Cahill (drama), Tracee Eger (arts and crafts) and Jacob Mezrahi (first aid).
Mezrahi was in the program when he was a kid. He served as a counselor before becoming a head counselor. "It's nice to be able to work for the community," he said.
At SUNY Cortland, where Mezrahi earned his undergraduate degree, he served as student council president. He will student-teach in New Hyde Park and plans to attend the University of Florida for his master's degree. He plans on a career in health education and has benefited from the experience he has gained as both a participant in the summer recreation program and as a counselor. "You have to really adjust your language so you can talk to them without confusing them," said Mezrahi one of the many examples of what he has learned about working with children.
Some of the other valuable lessons Mezrahi and the other counselors have learned are how to be understanding, different children react differently to situations and children, like adults, have different interests and personalities. "Different kids will respond differently when you ask them what's wrong," Mezrahi said. "Some kids play cards all the time. Some kids don't sit down."
Yet, Mezrahi believes that it is the counselor's job not to push the children to do something they don't want to, but to encourage them to do something they do. In that respect, the counselors sometimes find themselves helping children deal with their emotions. "Sometimes they don't want to play. You have to understand and encourage. If they are afraid, then we must encourage. You have to think about what the kids are thinking," said Mezrahi.
These 43 counselors not only completed a summer job, but also a crash course on dealing with children. It is a big responsibility, but one which the counselors gladly accept. It's become all worth it when they hear a child say he or she will miss their time in the program and is already looking forward to coming back next year.