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From Camper to Camp Director

The following is an interview with Cookie Shapiro, the Director of the Bank Street Summer Camp. 

Tell me about your first Summer Camp experience.

I started as a camper at Camp Gilowat. It’s no longer in business, but I was a camper there for 2 weeks one summer in August, when I was thirteen. It was the worst experience of my life. I didn’t know anybody and a lot of the kids had already been there for most of the summer or they had been going for years and had developed their own cliques. I also couldn’t swim. Most of the kids my age could swim and when they did they swam in the “C Section” of the pool. The pool had the “Crib,” the “A Section,” which was at the shallow end, the “B Section,” which was a little deeper and the “C Section” which was at the deep end. I was originally in The Crib but the staff felt bad for me so they put me in the A Section while everyone in my age group was in C. It was really embarrassing and I found every reason under the sun not to go into the pool after that.

How did you learn how to swim?

I became a counselor in training when I was 14, we called them overnight counselor aids and I had this camper named Martha Schwartz. Martha was an incredible athlete but she was an especially good swimmer. One day, when I was 16 and she was 10, she asked me why I didn’t swim in the deep end. I replied that it was because I didn’t know how to swim. Her response was, “I’ll teach you” and this ten year old camper taught me how to swim when I was sixteen. I continued to be a counselor at Gilowat until I was 20.

How did you begin at Bank Street?

Michael Ginsberg knew me from folk dancing and I had just been accepted into Teacher’s College Physical Education program. He came to me at the end of August and asked if I was interested in an open position at Bank Street. I said that I didn’t know how to teach gym and he said, “No problem. You’ll be fine. I’ll help you.” I had one interview and that was it because school was going to start in a few days.

How long did you teach at Bank Street for?

I taught for 14 years as the Physical Education Teacher. When I first started I was also doing dance with some of the students. Much later I became the director of the 13’s play for the School for Children and I did that for 10 years.

How did you become involved with Bank Street Camp?

I had been involved for the school for a few years and the school asked me if I would be willing to get trained to be the Aquatics Director. I had already been a lifeguard and director of the Teen Travel for the Clifton Passaic YMHA program much earlier, so I knew I could do it well. So I got my WSI Certificate (Water Safety Instructor) and became the Aquatics Director but a few years later, in 1997, I became the Director of the whole Camp. But there were about three or four years where I was the Camp Director, the Gym Teacher and the 13’s play Director. When Ricky Forde came I was able to devote more attention to the camp but I continued to coach and run the play.

How have your experiences at Camp Gilawat and your experience as a Bank Street teacher influenced you as the director of the Bank Street Summer Camp?

I did not have an easy childhood and my social life was very hard. Dancing was the only outlet I had to really express myself but when I started going to Camp Gilowat I was able to remake myself. For instance, my name within my family was always Cookie but everyone else new me as Arlene, which is my legal name, and once I got to Camp I transformed my whole personality into Cookie, which is who I really was. For a long time it was really hard for me and thanks to my experiences at Camp I found a way through those rough years.  So, when I first became the director of the Camp, I wanted Bank Street to be a place where campers always felt safe. That’s the single most important thing to me.  Through that safety, campers have the opportunity to try something and fail, and try again, or change what they want to do. These types of options are essential at those vulnerable ages, when most kids are socially awkward.  I believe that because of my experiences as a child, I have been able to create a camp where I would have felt safe as a kid. That’s the camp that the Bank Street philosophy allows us to make. There are many kids that do want a highly competitive camp and that’s great and there are some kids that want more of an outdoor, sports type of camp and that’s great too but the beauty of Bank Street Camp is that while campers can do everything from perform on a stage to make films, our counselors, staff and leaders will always be respectful of the fact that not everybody is going to be at the same level. That’s the key and that’s the beauty of Bank Street.