A woman (right) is kneeling in front of a child (left). Behind them are other children and camp counselors.
Cameron Mattex participates in team building with a camper. (Mary and Frances Youth Center)

Two Lobs & Lessons program counselors began their journeys as participants

As children, Cameron Mattex and Mitsuko Cedras enrolled in programs offered by the VCU Mary and Frances Youth Center. Now they work as counselors for the same programs they attended.

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In 2015, Cameron Mattex and Mitsuko Cedras attended Discovery, a summer camp led by the Mary and Frances Youth Center for rising sixth- to eighth-graders. The weeklong program allowed them to take all sorts of classes – including science, technology, engineering, arts and health sciences – on Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus.

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 first-year VCU student majoring in criminal justice with a minor in social welfare, attended the Discovery program for three years. Mattex, a first-year VCU student majoring in health services with minors in business and public management, recalls meeting great camp counselors and peers, including her future freshman year roommate. She also attended Lobs & Lessons, a youth enrichment program at the Mary and Frances Youth Center that strengthens life skills, promotes academics and creates a path to higher education through tennis.

A tennis court covered in cones. Counselors and campers are standing around it.
Mitsuko Cedras guides students. The Mary and Frances Youth Center serves more than 600 youth each year. (Mary and Frances Youth Center)

As Mattex and Cedras approached the grade level where they would age out of the center’s available programming, they inquired about ways they could stay involved. As luck would have it, the youth center was in the final stages of developing its junior counselor program.

Junior camp counselors assist with programming and serve as role models for Lobs & Lessons participants. “A camp counselor is the most important person in a camper’s life,” the junior camp counselor job description states. “Setting the tone for the entire summer, and in some cases, for life, the counselor’s job is not to be taken lightly.”

“We had been considering starting a Counselor in Training program for a few years and with the interest of Cam and Mitsuko, we knew it was the right timing,” said Tina Carter, director of the Mary and Frances Youth Center. “I attended an American Camp Association conference that year and selected every workshop they offered on CIT programs, brought a guidebook back … and said, ‘Let’s make this happen.’”

“Developing the Counselor in Training program was a natural next step in creating an intentional youth program pipeline,” said Rachel Rhoney, assistant director of the Mary and Frances Youth Center. “The three-year leadership program connects the gap between our youth participants and program counselors, giving them opportunities to grow their soft and hard skills in a fun summer camp environment.”

Mattex and Cedras were part of the first cohort of junior counselors. Cedras, who initially had no tennis experience, learned how to play – and later, teach – the sport while on the job.

“It was definitely different,” Mattex said of returning to the center in a mentor role for the kids. “The camp counselors who kind of raised us, we were now working with.”

A woman looking into a microscope with a child standing next to her.
Mitsuko Cedras learns about forensics during her time as a camper at the Mary and Frances Youth Center. (Mary and Frances Youth Center)

Mattex and Cedras were junior counselors for three years. In 2021, the center hired them as staff program counselors.

The two lead programs rather than shadow other staff members. They engage with children, execute the day’s on- and off-court lesson plans, attend monthly staff meetings and even participate in some planning for future programming. 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 makes in the lives of youth. The experiences they had starting in middle school created a ripple effect and opened up future opportunities for them at VCU and beyond,” Carter said.

For both students, working with kids has been the most rewarding part of the experience. The Mary and Frances Youth Center serves more than 600 youth a year, most of them from Richmond. Mattex is passionate about engaging with these kids and learning their struggles, which she said reflect bigger societal problems in the Richmond area that the youth center helps address.

Two youth looking into a mixing bowl, the girl on the right is cracking an egg over it.
Cameron Mattex (right) during an activity when she was a camper. (Mary and Frances Youth Center)

“I think our program definitely reflects a culture of kids getting to be kids and relax,” Mattex said. “We’re not very strict on [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 the kids,” Cedras said. “There have definitely been hard days, but when the kids can see that you care about them, I feel like interactions come naturally. … They want to listen, they want to have fun.”

Both Mattex and Cedras have dreams of helping people through health services. Mattex’s biggest career goal is to start her own cultural care center, which she described as “a hospital, just based around cultural competency from health care staff.” Cedras is considering pursuing a master’s degree in social work and eventually working in hospitals.

But for now, they both can be found helping kids on the tennis court.

A group of children bouncing balls on tennis rackets on a tennis court.
Cameron Mattex leads on-court drills. (Mary and Frances Youth Center)