SCARBOROUGH — Summer for many children means reuniting with camp friends, and even though camps in the 2020 season are a lot smaller, campers are making the most of it and creating lifelong memories.
Camp doesn’t just give kids opportunities to have fun and develop life-long skills, Tom Doherty, executive director of Camp Ketcha, said. Many parents rely on camp for primary childcare during the weekdays.
Camp Ketcha in Scarborough stays open until the last week of August, Doherty said, when the organization’s after-school childcare programs can begin. Staff are already working on a plan, which will be based on what the school year will look like.
“(On July 30) the school board has drafted a plan, and we’re finalizing our plan and we had surveyed the parents,” Doherty said. “We’re just trying to figure out how to support these things. It looks like kids are only going to school two days a week, and when you’re six you can’t stay home alone for three days.”
Fiddlehead Center for the Arts in Scarborough has been offering remote learning classrooms each week since the spring, Oona Gilles-Weil, director, said.
“With COVID-19, schools in the area closed on March 13, and we opened our remote classroom on March 16, running it initially as enrichment and support for students who no longer had in-person learning,” Gilles-Weil said. “We were excited to connect with them, so we did one hour every morning and one hour every afternoon all through the spring. Parents really appreciated the consistency. We have a core group of 10 to 12 kids each class, and we feel like it helped them learn about Zoom and how a remote class works.”
In-person camp opportunities opened up for Fiddlehead campers this summer as well, she said.
“We were planning for all different scenarios and in the end of May, it looked likely we would be able to offer some in-person camps,” Gilles-Weil said. “With social distancing we reconfigured everything. We did a lot of measurements and we found that we could fit 16 campers.”
Fiddlehead is grateful for parents who have trusted and supported the organization, she said.
“We’ve been thinking of what was the right thing to do and the safety, and we made a lot of changes,” Gilles-Weil said. “We got a grant from the Maine Arts Commission to be able to open our arts space. We were able to rip out an old carpet and put in vinyl flooring that’s easier to clean.”
Students have appreciated being able play with their friends and peers, she said.
“A lot of parents have told us this is their first time out of the house since March,” Gilles-Weil said. “We’ve had them wearing masks and telling kids that this is to protect friends and themselves, and they’ve even created a song about it. We’re proud to see young people take it on and be leaders in doing the right thing. It’s been fun to make art and learn and play and have a little bit of normalcy.”
With a significant number of camps in Maine that had to close this season, Camp Ketcha was also unsure if it would be able to offer summer camp this year, Doherty said.
Camp Ketcha, which usually has about 300 campers in the summer, could only take 74 children this year, Doherty said. The decision to un-enroll students who had already applied for camp was one of the hardest he’s made in his career.
“Things are a little bit slower,” he said. “Camp is a little bit quieter. It was up in the air, up until we started to see what other states were doing. There’s an active statewide group of people who do camp, and they were active in saying ‘If we could do camp, how could we?’ I think 70 percent of the camps in Maine closed. Maine basically invented children’s youth camping, so that’s pretty significant. We’re a Maine-based camp with Maine kids so we didn’t have the risk of bringing in kids from New York or other states where the virus is getting worse.”
Although the COVID-19 situation can be stressful, Doherty said that he’s glad Camp Ketcha’s staff and counselors are able to teach kids to be safe while not causing a panic.
“I think the kids are pretty resilient,” he said. “The staff did a bunch of training, but the kids were really happy to get back to camp and do stuff, especially kids who are only children. They hadn’t been out to play with friends in a while. We try not to traumatize the kids, like, ‘Oh my god, you’re going to die if you don’t put your mask on.’ We wash our hands more and sanitize. The staff to kids ratio is much higher now. It’s one-to-four, and they get a lot of individualized attention.”
There is a positive side to the decreased number of students, Doherty said. With a higher staff-to-student ratio, Camp Ketcha was able to have a bonfire event with marshmallows, an impossible activity for 300 campers.
“We eliminated a lot of the specialty camps, the horseback riding, anything that would have taken kids away from the camp, and things we couldn’t sanitize,” he said. “Normally, we have big group activities. Now everything occurs in groups of eight kids. It’s all very small and the groups stay separate. We did a thing today where the kids lip synced and danced to popular songs. Normally, that would have 300 kids, 100 staff, and parents come to watch, and this year was just a small thing and we livestreamed it.”
Camp serves as a respite for children in difficult situations at home, Doherty said. He has seen children, who have gone through trauma at home, be able to jump in the pool and laugh with friends.
“It’s nice to see the resiliency of the kids, and seeing this has reaffirmed my belief that kids benefit from this work,” he said. “Sometimes you just keep doing this over and over, and to see kids get outside and play and shoot bows and arrows and chase goats and feed ducks — you forget how important that is until you lose that, and we did lose that. Listening to parents, we realized we needed to have this as much as possible.”
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