March 11, 2010

City-run day camps fill up fast



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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer... Children participate in an after school program in a parks and recreation program at the Saco Community Center on Wednesday, March 18, 2009. Salena Smothers, 5, sits on the sidelines after being tagged out in a game of tag at the Saco Community Center.

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer... Children participate in an after school program in a parks and recreation program at the Saco Community Center on Wednesday, March 18, 2009.

Staff Writer

Municipal day camps are enjoying a surge of interest this year as cost-conscious parents choose less expensive alternatives to overnight camps or traditional day care.

In Saco, more than 100 people signed up their children for day camp on the first day of registration. Last year, only 12 people did that.

''It's been unbelievable,'' said Parks and Recreation Director Joe Hirsch. ''We're expanding the program and taking in more money.''

Local recreation departments are expanding offerings and hitting record-breaking figures on enrollment in both camps and sports activities. These programs offer local children a taste of traditional summer camp while being cost-effective and convenient for working parents.

The demand has been good news for city and town governments, too.

During a recent budget discussion, the Saco parks and recreation budget was one of the few to show an increase in revenue. It was up $118,000, due in large part to the increase in day camp attendance. Hirsch said he has spent $62,000 on the expanded program; the remaining $56,000 went into city coffers.

He thinks some of the demand is from parents who work longer hours or take on second jobs and need all-day care for their children. In some cases, municipal day camps also are less expensive than day care, or at least provide more outdoor activities.

About 350 children are expected to attend Saco's 10-week day camp, which costs $695 per child for residents and $895 for nonresidents.

''It's apparent that a lot of this is economy-related,'' Hirsch said. ''I think one of the major reasons people are choosing day camps is that they want their kids to have the summer camp experience, and you don't get that'' at most day-care centers.

Maine is known as a haven for day and overnight summer camps, with the 200 licensed operations hosting more than 20,000 children annually.

There are about 100 more camps, such as vacation Bible schools and enrichment programs, that do not require licenses and have an unknown number of participants, said Mary Ellen Deschenes, director of the Maine Youth Camping Foundation.

It's clear that some campers who used to go to overnight camps are headed to day camps this year, local officials said.

''I've heard people talking about how maybe they used to have kids in resident camp, but they may not be doing so because of the cost. But they still want something for their children to do,'' said Carl Walsh, director of the Biddeford Recreation Department.

Biddeford's February vacation camp was booked solid with a waiting list, and the summer day camp enrollment is ongoing, he said. The city runs a nine-week program for $710, with nonresidents paying an extra $10.

Mindful of tough economic times, the city now accepts a half-payment up front, with the remainder due halfway through the program.

''Someone likened the situation to what it was like after 9/11, when people were staying closer to home and planning more local activities because they weren't traveling,'' Walsh said.

And it's not just children's camps that are popular, directors say.

Adult activity leagues and adult classes teaching everything from kayaking to dance are also maxing out, probably for similar reasons: Adults are putting big vacation plans on hold and looking to sign up for regular activity locally, and the low-cost programs are also a positive experience for people who are out of work.

Just last week, the Portland Recreation Department broke an enrollment record for its aquatics program, said Sally DeLuca, a division manager who oversees programming.

''It's been a really good year for us,'' DeLuca said.

About 450 children take part in Portland's day camps, which cost from $1,000 to $1,200 for eight weeks.

Conscious of the economy, the recreation department added a new section to its seasonal activity guide that lists free events and opportunities. The department also launched a ''playground hopping'' program, where staff members go to local parks with equipment.

''We want to encourage people to get out with their kids,'' DeLuca said. ''We're selling affordable fun.''

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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