Nearly all of Maine’s summer camps are planning to reopen in the next few weeks, following a year when many didn’t operate and others were only able to welcome a small number of youngsters because of the threat of COVID-19.

Last year, about a third of all municipal recreation camps and more than 60 percent of overnight and day camps didn’t open, according to estimates from Maine camp and recreation associations. But this summer will not be without its challenges.

Camps are seeing brisk enrollments with kids eager to have a more normal summer and parents looking for a break from child care and remote learning. Many town rec camps and overnight camps are planning to run at close to their normal capacities, but with some lingering restrictions because of campers who are under 12 and too young to be vaccinated. Those include fewer field trips, masks for campers indoors and some social distancing.

Many town- and city-run recreation and day camps say it’s been more difficult than ever to find high school and college-age staff this year as the state experiences a glut of service and retail job openings. Adding to the labor shortage, camp operators say, is the fact that some educators and school bus drivers who usually work at camps in the summer have not reapplied this year, possibly in need of a break after a particularly stressful school year.

The McGonagle family of Gorham – Aya and Steve McGonagle with their children Carter, 11, Keegan, 7 and Emi, 6 – are looking forward to summer rec camp. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Maine’s overnight camps have had to scramble to replace staffers who regularly come to Maine from other countries and account for about 30 percent of Maine staffs some years. Many can’t return this year because of travel or visa restrictions. Some overnight camps are offering referral bonuses and aggressively recruiting among alumni and former staff.

Still, recreation directors, camp operators, parents and kids say they are excited for a return to a more normal summer at Maine’s 250-plus summer camps. Since last summer, 10-year-old Alexis Vergales of Charlottesville, Virginia, has been counting the days until her arrival at Camp Fernwood in Poland.

“Twenty-three,” she said, cheerfully, on the phone from Virginia in early June. “Last year, you could only hang out with kids in your (age) division and you couldn’t do the ropes courses or field trips or woodworking. I’m really looking forward to water skiing and seeing my friends. I like everything about camp.”

Alexis’ father, Jeff Vergales, is happy about camps getting back to normal, not only as a parent, but also as a physician who spends his summers working as camp doctor at both Fernwood and Camp Skylemar in Naples.

“I cannot express in words how important the camp experience is for my daughter and other kids. So many things got canceled for kids this year, so to have camps pretty close to back to normal is a great thing,” said Vergales, who is also a former counselor at Camp Skylemar.

FOR MANY, A NECESSITY

Ron Hall, executive director of Maine Summer Camps, said that more than 60 percent of overnight and day camps had no in-person sessions last year. He said about 28 percent had no revenue at all, while two-thirds of the camps saw revenue decline by 70 percent.

This year, he knows of only one out of the 170 overnight and day camps in the state that will not open for in-person campers this year – Camp Sunshine, a retreat for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families in Casco. The camp decided not to reopen this summer because it serves children who are immune-compromised and wanted to wait for more people in the general population to be vaccinated, said executive director Mike Katz.

Deb Smith, executive director of the Maine Recreation and Parks Association, said she has not heard about any of the 80 or so rec camps in the association not operating this summer.

Excellent Uwizeye 14, of Westbrook looks to pass the ball during a basketball game at the after-school program at the Intercultural Community Center in Westbrook. The center will be hosting a hybrid version of its summer program. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Maine lifted just about all state restrictions relating to COVID-19 in May, including the specific summer camp guidelines that the industry followed last year. This year, camps are following recommendations on summer camp safety from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which include encouraging, but not requiring, vaccinations for anyone old enough. Campers or staff who aren’t fully vaccinated should wear masks indoors or in close quarters, and people should try to maintain 3 feet of distance, according to the U.S. CDC.

Because most camps will have kids under 12, they’ll use some social distancing and masking rules. Many also say they learned last year that they can do a lot of camp activities outside – where experts say transmission of COVID-19 is extremely rare – including eating meals and doing crafts. Still, every camp is adjusting its rules a little differently, based on their facilities, the age groups they serve, and the comfort level of both families and staff.

At the Intercultural Community Center in Westbrook, the summer program will operate with two in-person days and two remote days, plus one optional drop-in day, said Beatrice Mucyo, the director. Last summer, it was fully remote. While some summer camps give kids a break from school and their everyday lives, the summer program at the Intercultural Community Center is more of a necessity, with educational programs that help the children of immigrants improve English language and other skills. Because children under 12 can’t be vaccinated yet, Mucyo said some of the parents involved in the program feel more comfortable easing their kids into a hybrid model.

“It will be nice for kids to get out of the house more this summer, but we know not everyone is comfortable coming every day yet,” Mucyo said.

Rec camps across Maine also fill a child care need for working parents, many of whom have struggled over the past year to balance full-time jobs with taking care of children at home or juggling day care options.

Meredith Gay of York is especially glad that rec camp in her town is back this year, after it was canceled completely last year. As a single mother, Gay had to help her 8-year-old son with remote learning and ask family to help with his care last summer. She and her son are looking forward to a more normal summer, where he can swim and play with friends and she can focus on her job in health care.

“We are ecstatic that he can go to camp this year,” Gay said.

Robin Cogger, left, director, and Andy Kaherl, recreation coordinator, at York Parks and Recreation, are getting ready to open York’s summer camp this year. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

York’s rec camp is returning at a slightly lower than normal capacity this year – 50 kids in each of two locations, compared to 60 to 90 each in other years, said Robin Cogger, director of the York Parks and Recreation Department. Cohorts or groups will stay separated again this year, she said, to avoid the entire group coming into contact with each other. Campers will also be masked when close together, and socially distanced, Cogger said. Like most rec camps, camps range in age from elementary schoolers to early teens, meaning many won’t be vaccinated. The camp will likely not go on field trips, because during the budget process it was unclear if they would be allowed or practical, Cogger said, so they weren’t included. Instead the camp will hire people to put on events at camp, like laser tag.

Demand for rec camp slots has varied from town to town. Many camps were reporting in late May they still had openings, while others filled up fast. Registrations at the five camps run by the YMCA of Southern Maine, including in Portland, are about 40 percent of what they were in 2019, before the pandemic, but about 130 percent of what they were last year, said Meaghan Woodsome, district executive for the YMCA of Southern Maine.

At Camp Ketcha, a nonprofit day camp in Scarborough, online registration opened Feb. 24 and the 200 or so spots per day were filled in about 10 minutes, said Tom Doherty, director of Ketcha Outdoors, which runs the camp. Camp activities will feature swimming in a pool and a pond, as well as games, sports and crafts. The camp won’t offer specialty weeks, like a Harry Potter camp, that it has offered in the past, Doherty said.

“It’s flattering that people want to come to our camp, but sad that families who have come for years might be shut out,” said Doherty, who said more spots might be added. The camp had more than 300 campers a day before the pandemic.

Steve McGonagle of Gorham says he’s been happy that the Gorham rec camps are running near full capacity this year, and have kept him and other parents aware of their plans all spring. His three children – ages 6, 7 and 11 – are all going to camp. He often travels out of town for his job in the insurance business, and his wife works as a chemist in a lab, so the day care provided by summer camp is important for them.

“Last year there was such uncertainty,” said McGonagle. “For the sanity of the parents and the kids, it’s great that this is happening.”

Ellyn Black, the owner of Camp Fernwood, sits by the campfire site Tuesday. Black has been preparing the camp for the arrival of campers and staff later this month. Derek Davis//Staff Pho

CAMP WORKERS WANTED

Several rec camp directors say they’ve had more trouble finding staff this year, but not enough to shut their camps down. In York, Coggins said she’s had to hire younger staff, 16- and 17-year-olds, where in the past she had more college-age applicants. One of York’s older new counselors, 19-year-old Marley Mailloux, said she applied because she really wanted a job outside and to work with kids. But she said her friends have had their pick of less strenuous jobs that pay around the same, minimum wage or a little better.

At the YMCA, Woodsome said hiring staff this year has been “challenging” but that the camps will be fully staffed when they open Monday. The branch runs five camps throughout southern Maine with a total of 40 counselors, but is “always looking to bring on additional staff” during the summer as needs change, Woodsome said.

Some teachers who worked at Saco rec camps in the summer are “a little more tired” after the pandemic school year and have asked to work fewer hours, but the camps will be fully staffed, said Ryan Sommer, the city’s parks and recreation director.

Gorham Parks and Recreation Director Cindy Hazelton said she’s been having trouble finding bus drivers this year and may have to cut down on field trips to local swimming holes or parks, unless she can hire about four more of them soon. Usually, she gets plenty of applications from people who drive school buses from September to June and are looking for a summer job to augment their pay.

“It could be fatigue after all they’ve been through, I’m not sure,” said Hazelton.

In pre-pandemic years, workers from other countries made up about 30 percent of the 13,000 staff members at Maine’s overnight and day summer camps, said Hall of Maine Summer Camps. This year, camps haven’t been able to rehire many of their international staffers because of travel restrictions from many countries into the U.S. and because many embassies aren’t doing visa interviews right now, he said.

Sebastian Bargmann, the assistant maintenance director at Camp Fernwood in Poland, prepares for the camp’s opening. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Camp Fernwood, the overnight camp for girls in Poland, normally has 30 to 40 staff members from other countries, about half returning from previous years, said Fritz Seving, one of the camp’s directors. But this year, the camp will have one new and four returning international staff members, all from Mexico, a country from which travel to the U.S. is allowed. Seving said some activities might have to be canceled because of understaffing.

Seving said he usually has many returning international workers who have experience at the camp, including counselors and others in supervisory roles. So this year he’ll have fewer people who are experienced at training new staff.

One of Camp Fernwood’s international workers who can’t come back this year is Nikki Wedermann, from Cape Town, South Africa. She works as a nanny during the school year and has been working at Camp Fernwood for 10 summers, recently as a waterfront director. Because of travel restrictions and embassies not taking in-person appointments for visas, she was not able to schedule an interview with the U.S. Embassy until late July, after camp starts.

“So this is my first year of not being at camp in a decade. I won’t be getting my annual dose of happiness,” Wedermann wrote in an email.

The Maine Teen Camp, an overnight camp in Porter, usually has 35 or more foreign workers on its staff of about 100, who come from Europe, South America, Asia and Australia, said co-director Matt Pines. As of early June, he had only one confirmed returning this year, from Mexico, but had others lined up to come from Mexico and Columbia. He said the camp is offering bonuses to staff members who recommend new applicants, but would not say for how much. He and other camp directors also say they’ve been recruiting more aggressively this year among camp alumni and former campers, to replace the foreign workers.

Pines said Maine overnight camps for years have attracted international workers who are looking for an interesting summer experience and have skills the camps need. For example, Pines said most water ski instructors at his camp are from Australia, as he is. He first came to Maine as a camp counselor in the late 1990s. Pines also thinks having an international staff makes for a better experience for the campers, by getting to meet people from around the world.

Seving and other camp directors say finding counselors, kitchen help and maintenance staff among Mainers has been especially difficult this year, with the state’s unemployment rate under 5 percent. Some service and retail businesses have been closing temporarily because they can’t find help. Early this month, Seving said he still needed to hire about four or five staff members before camp opens in late June.

“Working at a camp, where half of the campers probably won’t be vaccinated, can be a tough sell when you’re competing with places that are offering bonuses to wait tables,” said Seving.


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