In 2015, Cameron Mattex and Mitsuko Cedras attended Discovery, a summer camp run by the Mary and Frances Youth Center for students in grades six through eight. The week-long program allowed them to take all kinds of courses – including science, technology, engineering, arts and health sciences – on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University.
The Discovery program was discontinued in 2020, but the positive experiences Mattex and Cedras had there influenced their lives for years to come. Cedras, now a freshman at VCU majoring in criminal justice with a minor in social welfare, took the Discovery program for three years. Mattex, a freshman at VCU who is majoring in health services with minors in business and public management, recalls meeting great camp counselors and peers, including her future roommate from first year. She also participated in Lobs & Lessons, a youth enrichment program at the Mary and Frances Youth Center that builds life skills, promotes academics, and paves the way to higher education through tennis.
As Mattex and Cedras approached the grade level where they would age out of the center’s available programming, they educated themselves on ways to stay involved. Luckily, the youth center was in the final stages of developing its junior counselor program.
The camp’s junior counselors help with programming and serve as role models for Lobs & Lessons participants. “A camp counselor is the most important person in a camper’s life,” says the job description for the junior camp counselor. “Setting the tone for the whole summer, and in some cases, for life, the advisor’s job is not to be taken lightly.
“We had been considering starting a counselor-training program for a few years and with Cam and Mitsuko’s interest, we knew it was the right time,” said Tina Carter, director of the Mary and Frances Youth Center. “I attended an American Camp Association conference that year and picked out all the workshops they offered on CIT programs, brought back a guidebook…and said, ‘Let’s do make that happen. “”
“Developing the Training Counselor program was a natural next step in creating a pipeline of intentional programs for youth,” said Rachel Rhoney, Deputy Director of Mary and Frances Youth Center. “The three-year leadership program connects our young participants with the program counselors, giving them the opportunity to develop their soft and hard skills in a fun summer camp environment.”
Mattex and Cedras were among the first cohort of junior advisers. Cedras, who initially had no tennis experience, learned to play – and later teach – the sport while on the job.
“It was definitely different,” Mattex said of returning to the center in a role as a mentor to kids. “The camp counselors who kind of raised us, who we were working with now.”
Mattex and Cedras served as junior advisors for three years. In 2021, the center hired them as staff program advisers.
Both programs lead rather than follow other staff. They interact with the children, execute lesson plans for the day on and off the field, attend monthly staff meetings, and even help plan future programs. After two semesters of balancing a job while navigating college for the first time, Mattex and Cedras feel more comfortable and confident in their roles.
“Cam and Mitsuko are a true ‘full circle’ example of the impact the Lobs & Lessons program has on the lives of young people. The experiences they had from college created a ripple effect and opened up future opportunities for them at VCU and beyond,” Carter said.
For both students, working with children was the most rewarding part of the experience. The Mary and Frances Youth Center serves over 600 young people a year, mostly from Richmond. Mattex is passionate about engaging with these children and learning about their struggles, which she believes reflect larger societal issues in the Richmond area that the youth center helps address.
“I think our program definitely reflects a culture where kids become kids and relax,” Mattex said. “We are not very strict about [telling the kids] what not to do or what to do. Even if there are behavioral issues, we work with them to see their choices and make better ones.
“I love working with children,” Cedras said. “There were definitely some tough days, but when the kids can see that you care about them, I feel like the interactions come naturally. … They want to listen, they want to have fun.
Mattex and Cedras both dream of helping people through health services. Mattex’s biggest career goal is to create her own cultural care center, which she described as “a hospital, based solely on the cultural competence of healthcare personnel.” Cedras plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work and possibly work in hospitals.
But for now, they can both be found helping the kids on the tennis court.
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