Summer camps face bleak future without government aid: advocates
TORONTO -- Overnight camp is a summer staple -- a rite of passage for many.
A chance for kids to gain confidence away from home.
But COVID-19 has destroyed the dream of sleeping in cabins and enjoying marshmallows by the fire for hundreds of thousands of kids.
In at least seven provinces, parents can’t send their children off to camp, like they normally do this time of year.
According to the Canadian Camping Association (CCA), roughly 40 per cent of overnight camps will not be able to open next year without government intervention, potentially impacting around one million children.
“All of those first experiences that they have, they’re not getting this summer,” Natalie Benson, of Christie Lake Kids Camp in Ontario told CTV News. “And for their families, it’s even more difficult. Some of these parents rely on us.”
COVID-19 has forced camps across the country to close.
Some camps, such as Pearce Williams Summer Camp & Retreat Facility in Ontario, have had to ask full-time staff to take salary cuts, and are asking for donations to help stay afloat.
And the uncertainty is only getting worse for others.
While Christie Lake Kids is offering virtual programs, they’re free of charge -- and thus don’t help the camp owners pay the bills.
New Brunswick’s Green Hill Lake camp was allowed to open, but after 59 years in operation, its future is in jeopardy.
They can’t operate at full capacity and still allow for campers to practice physical distancing.
“We want them to be safe,” Tim Carruthers, with Green Hill Camp, told CTV News.
As a result, facilities are only a third full, and PPE is driving up costs.
“Its tough times ahead,” Carruthers said. “Unfortunately, because of COVID-19, the future of our organization is not in a good place. And there is a lot of challenges at play.”
The big worry, for both camps that were able to open this summer and those that were not, is the future.
For summer camps to survive 2020, it’s estimated at least $100 million in government funding is needed.
Without it, about 250 camps will shut for good by December 2020, followed by another 350 next May, according to the CCA.
“Approximately 20 per cent of camps are in a position now of closing down,” Mark Diamond, Manitou Camp Director and vice-president of the Ontario Camps Association, told CTV News. “We expect another 20 per cent to decide in the spring that they just can’t make it to 2021.”
He said that he’s heard from numerous camp owners in Ontario who are running out of options.
“It’s really essential that our governments listen and acknowledge that camps are essential to our country,” he said.
A spokesperson from the Office of the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development said in an emailed statement to CTV News that they “understand the need for services for families and children across Canada is now greater than ever before.
"Our Government’s $350M Emergency Community Support Fund (ECSF) assists charities and non-profits who work with local communities to provide support for vulnerable Canadians during COVID-19,” the statement read. “Children and Youth Serving organizations that provide summer camp experience have access to this support to help with their programs.”
However, the statement stopped short of indicating that there were any dedicated government funds for summer camps planned.
The spokesperson added that “privately owned camps can also apply to the Wage Subsidy to ensure to re-hire and keep their employees on pay roll and new demands linked to the pandemic.”
It's a frustrating response, Diamond says, since according to him, ECSF is "not available or workable for camps."
He told CTV News in an email that "not one camp has been able to receive funding from this fund and in fact the requirements of this fund require camps to spend money and put them in a bigger loss position."
If camps are forced to shut down en masse due to their finances, the real losers will be the children, according to long-time camp counsellor Sierra Duff.
Before Duff was a counsellor at Christie Lake Kids, she was a camper there herself. And she credits the camp with helping her develop as a person.
“Camp means the world to me,” she told CTV News. “It’s one of the most important things in my life. It’s shaped me into who I am today.”
She’s happy she can connect with campers through the virtual camp efforts that Christie Lake is currently conducting, but said that the “social and emotional connections” are weakened by not being in person.
“It’s a whole different life when you’re at camp, especially for the kids because we get to take them away from the city and put them in an environment where they’re out of their comfort zone 100 per cent.”
She believes the positive effect overnight camp has on children should not be discounted.
“This is their one wish all year round, to come back to camp,” she said. “I don’t see why we should take another thing from them, when this is such a positive, good experience and could give them some of the tools they need for being an adult.”
It’s a sentiment that Diamond shares.
“Camps result in healthy adults and they contribute to the wellbeing of our society and really are the key to what our values are,” he said.
“We believe strongly that one of the reasons Canadians are more tolerant, more compassionate, empathetic, strong leaders, have positive identity and really follow through in helping each other out is because of what camps do for kids.”