Andrea Hughes has looked into several summer camp options for her 7-year-old son, Whalen, who comes up from Georgia to spend the summer with her, but has yet to find a space. “It never occurred to me in a million years that by the second week in April, the Buxton Recreation’s camp would be full,” Hughes said. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

With months to go before school lets out for the summer, Andrea Hughes wasn’t expecting to have such a hard time finding a day camp for her 7-year-old son.

But the programs offered by the Buxton Recreation Department are full and other nearby camps already have waitlists.

Andrea Hughes of Buxton and her 7-year-old son, Whalen Hughes. Courtesy of Andrea Hughes

“I’ve been scrambling to find somewhere for him and it’s surprisingly difficult,” Hughes said. Her son, Whalen, comes up from Georgia to spend every summer with her in Buxton and has aged out of the day care center she previously used.

Parents across southern Maine are experiencing a similar scramble to find options as the demand soars and some municipal recreation camps are fully booked within hours, or in some cases, minutes. Many day camps, traditionally an accessible and affordable summer care option for working families, cannot keep up as they struggle to hire enough seasonal staff.

“The demand far outweighs the ability to meet the need between the staffing and space constraints many programs are facing,” said Nick Cliche, Portland’s recreation director. “As the parent of a young child myself, I know the anxiety and struggle about finding camp. It’s extremely difficult.”

The high demand for camps is not a surprise to Deb Smith, executive director of the Maine Recreation and Parks Association. Community recreation departments have long been the top out-of-school child care provider in the country, she said, and during the early years of the pandemic, even more parents were drawn to their programs.


“Community recreation departments became the place for kids to go. They had educational opportunities when kids were only in school some days,” she said. “I think people learned a bit more as a result about what parks and recreation departments are doing.”


When Windham Parks and Recreation opened summer camp registration in late March, it quickly overwhelmed staff. Two of the three camps were full within 15 minutes and, by the half-hour mark, all of the spots were gone.

“It came as a complete surprise to us,” director Linda Brooks said. “It’s very challenging because the recognition is that we just don’t have the resources for all the parents that need it.”

Last summer, Windham had 276 campers between its three camps and Brooks had hoped for more this year, but that may not be possible. The department is working through a waitlist to see if it can find more spots as additional staff is hired, but it’s unlikely most will get in. Some families have told Brooks they were able to get into neighboring towns.

“We’re a really fast-growing community and it’s hard to keep up with that growth,” she said.


It’s a similar situation in Portland, where registration opened the first week of March, a bit earlier than usual because staff wanted to give parents who might not snag a spot more time to find other options.

“It was insane,” Cliche said of the first day. “We were full for many weeks within three hours and for some within a matter of minutes.”

Four days later, all of the spots in the three mainland camps — at Rowe, Talbot and East End schools — were gone. There are still a few spots open on Peaks Island, where the department is offering a camp for 13 students as part of a pilot program.

Each summer, 400 kids attend one of the four programs in South Portland. The camps are popular, but this year the one for second and third graders filled up within 20 minutes.

“I’ve never seen it fill up the first day in all the years we’ve had it. I don’t know what it is about this year,” said Kari Filieo, the recreation department’s out-of-school programs manager. “The demand is crazy.”

The other camps were full within 10 days and each now has a waitlist. Filieo was able to add 10 kids to the second- and third-grade camp, but there are still 40 kids waiting to get in.


“I’ve had a lot of parents reaching out asking if there are any other options and if we are able to take more kids,” she said. “I tell them all the same thing — I do my absolute best to get as many kids off the waitlist as I can. But we can’t promise everyone will get in.”

Counselor Aidan Alastro pushes campers Miriam Means, left, and Helen Hatch on swings at Camp Ketcha in Scarborough last June. Some community recreation departments in southern Maine have had to limit their number of available spots at camps in anticipation of staff shortages. Camp Ketcha was able to open last year, but its director said they could’ve used a few more counselors. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In both Windham and Portland, space and staffing constraints prevent the recreation departments from expanding summer camps. In many communities, they are held in school buildings and vie for space with other programs. South Portland has plenty of staff, but no extra space that it can use in the elementary schools to accommodate more campers.

“It weighs on us as a staff that we can’t meet the needs of everyone,” Cliche said. “We know how important it is for families to have a safe place for children to go and recreate while their parents work.”


If all goes well, there will be around 200 kids attending rec camp in Biddeford this summer. While there has been an uptick in registration – there are still some spots available – the department is being cautious about how many registrations it takes before the seasonal staff is fully in place, said Carl Walsh, the city’s recreation director.

Walsh didn’t have any trouble finding seasonal staff until a few years ago, but now it’s a struggle to find the 30 employees he needs.


“It was a challenge last year, just as it has been with all organizations and companies. We expect it to be another challenging year,” he said.

Smith, from the recreation association, said some communities have dropped the number of spots because they anticipate not being able to find enough staff. She posts two to three job listings a day on the association’s website and hears regularly from recreation directors that they’re having a hard time hiring teenagers.

“They can go to a fast food chain now and flip a burger and not have any other responsibility while making more than they would for a town or city,” Smith said. She encourages departments to recruit retired or semi-retired people who may be interested in taking on a fun seasonal job.

Most recreation departments in the area pay camp counselors $14 to $17 an hour, with higher rates for supervisors.

In Brunswick, the recreation department opened camp registration early to try to get a sense of how many people wanted to attend so it could hire accordingly. Deputy Director Sabrina Best said everyone was floored by what they saw in the first week.

“It was double what we anticipated,” she said.


To find the staff it needed last year, the department hired more first-time workers, including 14- and 15-year-olds. Best said they also adjusted pay rates – counselors now earn $14 to $15 an hour – and started advertising at colleges to find camp counselors. The department is planning to participate in a job fair at Brunswick High School and be more proactive about advertising on social media.

When it comes to staffing summer camps, community services director Greg Post knows Westbrook is an anomaly.

The summer camps at the Westbrook Community Center will have 20 more campers this year, a move made possible because of the department’s ability to retain its seasonal staff. Post credits that retention to the relationships developed between coaches who work for the department and student-athletes looking for summer jobs.

Right now, Westbrook has 24 people hired but would like to be at 26.

“We’re still trying to figure it out, but we’re not panicking like we’re hearing about in other communities,” Post said.

He is confident the city will be able to hire those last couple of people and be ready for the first day of camp on June 26.

“It will be here before we know it,” he said. “We’re just plugging away.”

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