What will low-income families do without summer camp?

Overnight camps have been cancelled. The future of day camps remains uncertain. So Ontario organizations are trying to make sure that kids with fewer options will still get a summer experience
By Sula Greene - Published on May 22, 2020
Premier Doug Ford announced on May 19 that overnight summer camps would not be permitted to operate. (iStock/roballen38)

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This week, Ontario announced that overnight camps won't be operating this summer. For young people who spend their school year dreaming of paddling down a river, singing at a campfire, and swimming in Ontario’s lakes, this was the news they'd been dreading. While the City of Toronto has cancelled all day camps until further notice, the YMCA is still holding out hope that it might be able to offer kids an alternative to their overnight summer plans.

“The mood right now is focused,” says Brandon McClounie, vice-president of camping and outdoor education at the YMCA of Greater Toronto. Families that were relying on camps for child care will need support — whether that means an in-person day camp with physical-distancing measures or an entirely virtual program. But for low-income families that were planning to send their kids to overnight camp through financial assistance, this summer’s landscape will be more dramatically altered.

Costs for one week at overnight camp can range from $540 to upwards of $1,675, depending on the camp and its funding structure. For many parents, that’s simply too much. Studies have shown that income, more than lifestyle and genetics, is the most significant indicator of a healthy life. And access to nature by way of overnight camps is a privilege that many low-income families can’t afford.

There is little data available around demographics of kids at overnight camp, but there are a number of charities whose mission it is to provide a camp experience for marginalized young people. Kids in Camp is a national charity that shares the cost of camp with families in need. Last year, it supported 292 campers at 66 different OCA-accredited camps.

This year, most of its kids won’t make it to any camp at all. A small number will be assisted with day camps, if those are permitted to open, but the majority of funds will be held until camps reopen. Amici Camping Charity has a similar mandate; last year, it assisted 300 kids at 44 different camps. Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, Amici is creating a family relief fund that will support families with basic needs this summer. “Our families were already struggling to make ends meet and to provide opportunities for their children,” says Judy MacGowan, executive director of Amici Camping Charity. “When all of this is over, we believe that camp will be more important than ever. Our campers need the life-changing skill development, leadership opportunities, and, quite simply, the fun that camp provides.”

For the few low-income families that are able to send their kids to camp through assistance, the benefits are immense, MacGowan says: “We know that our families are struggling to make ends meet, and camp often provides a respite for the parents of our campers. For families in financial need, camp is so much more than camp.” The average household income of an Amici family, she says, is less than $28,000.

But now that overnight camp is cancelled? Alternatives may be even less accessible for these families. “I’m a firm believer that every child deserves a summer at camp,” says McClounie. “But those with more means are able to access camp-like outlets. Those who reside outside major metropolises have the ability to get out more easily into nature. Those who don’t necessarily have [those] means may benefit more from a camp experience.” Such benefits include building resilience, self-esteem and social skills, not to mention time outside and away from screens. That’s why the YMCA of Greater Toronto is prioritizing low-income families while planning for an unprecedented summer.

Day camps are the most promising alternative to cancelled overnight camps. “Unfortunately, we just can’t have camps with 500 kids living together right now,” Premier Doug Ford said in his announcement on May 19. “But there is some good news based on the best advice of our health experts. As long as trends continue to improve, summer day camps will be allowed to open in July and August.”

McClounie is waiting for provincial guidelines to determine what day camps might look like. Physical distancing at day camps is still a possibility, as is reducing the number of campers and camps. Approximately 50 per cent of campers at YMCA day camps receive financial assistance. For low-income families that may not have outdoor space at their homes, access to camp is a vital alternative. “The priority for us goes to those that otherwise couldn’t afford to get into other camp-like outlets like your local park, out on the trail, sitting on your balcony,” says McClounie.

If the worst-case scenario happens and no day camps are allowed to operate, virtual camp will be an important alternative. The YMCA is already offering some programs, such as virtual campfires, online to maintain the sense of community integral to camp. But, for some kids, access to a stable internet connection isn’t a given. In order to provide for them, McClounie says, there is talk at the YMCA of creating a “camp in a box,” which would provide families with at-home activities that teach kids the same skills they would otherwise have picked up at camp.

MacGowan sums it up: “It is the resilience children learn at camp that will help them navigate these uncharted waters.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Kids in Camp as an Ontario charity; it is, in fact, a national charity.

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