It Happened To Me: My Camp Counselor Was A Rapist

I was asked to leave camp and never come back for speaking out against a man who would later be convicted of raping a child.

Jan 24, 2012 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

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Since we grew up abroad, my father wanted to make sure my brother and I didn't miss out on the American experiences that mattered most to him, like spending summers at eight-week camp in Maine.

I was 10 when I started TLC, and while most campers attend until they're 16, I was asked to leave at 13 for bad behavior and never came back. I didn't think much about what happened, or if I did then I don't remember, until several years later when my mother sent me a chilling article she had seen in the Wall Street Journal.

Set across 260 acres atop a lake, TLC offered everything from tennis and horseback riding to water-skiing and theater. Days were spent flitting from activity to activity, each one run by a different staff of counselors. Some were graduated campers who loved TLC so much they wanted to come back, but many came from abroad and were looking to spend an easy summer working in the US. It was a good deal.

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The token weird counselor, Neil was short, overweight, balding and British, and he ran the archery course. He did textbook creepy things like come in from behind to demonstrate good form with a bow and carry a camera with a telescopic lens. He also made sure we always had lollipops.

As soon as he realized that I came to camp from England, too, he started giving me extra attention. I remember him taking me aside and telling me that he'd be visiting home for a few days. He asked what I wanted him to bring back for me as a present. This sounds innocent enough, but it made my 13-year-old self feel really uncomfortable. I didn't want adult male attention, and I especially didn't want to be singled out. I told him I was fine and not to bring me anything.

When Neil came back, he let me know (I don't remember how) that he had presents from England that he wanted to give me in private. I have a memory of him meeting me behind my bunk with loads of Cadbury chocolate. We weren't allowed to have food in the bunks, especially not candy, so he told me to keep it a secret.

I felt sleazy and gross. From that point onward, I decided that if I had to deal with Neil I'd be really unpleasant so that he'd lose interest and back off. I avoided archery as much as possible and stayed away from him when he trolled around camp documenting us with his mega-camera.

Everything was fine until it came time for a two-night camping trip. We weren't allowed to choose our groups or counselors; they were assigned. Of course Neil had landed a spot as a group leader, and when I heard him call my name I completely lost it.

"I'm not FUCKING going with you!" I yelled in his face.

I don't remember how I was disciplined, but I wasn't switched out of Neil's group and thus spent two nights away from camp with this person who made me feel completely uncomfortable and unsafe. I came back to camp to find out that the director had called my parents and asked that they collect me several weeks early for bad behavior. My parents begged the director to let me finish out the summer (after all, they were back in England), and she obliged under the condition that I never return.

Years later in 2008, my mother came across an article in the Wall Street Journal, "Rape Case Against Counselor Puts Camp On Guard." It was about Neil. 

Mr. Challis, a substitute teacher, was arrested in England in January after an 8-year-old girl told authorities that he had had sex with her for years. On June 24, he pleaded guilty to raping the girl first when she was 5 and continuing a relationship with her for three years. He also admitted to taking indecent photographs and possessing almost 4,000 pornographic images of children. He had no criminal record and hadn't been arrested before, according to the Derbyshire constabulary.

Mr. Challis was sentenced to 14 years in prison and could be kept longer if it is determined he is still a danger to the public, according to the police. He also will be placed on the sex-offenders register and won't be allowed to work with children again. 

Having my suspicions confirmed left me feeling completely disgusted and shaken. What if what had happened to this little girl could have been prevented? The whole experience has taught me to trust my instincts when I'm uncomfortable. I don't care if I seem paranoid.

There are countless cases of abuse where no one takes notice until something truly horrific happens, and this is no different. It took remarkable courage for his young victim to speak up. I won't claim to understand what it's like for her to carry on after something so horrific, but I think of her often and hope that she will.