Choosing the right summer camp Stories by Ashley Ernst • Illustration by Marc Stopeck
As summer creeps closer, parents struggle to find activities to keep kids busy. For many, the answer is summer camp. While June is still a few months away, it's not too early to think about camp. In fact, it may be a bit late.
"Camps really start [recruiting] after the first of the year," says Gordie Kaplan, executive director of the American Camping Association, citing tradition as the reason for beginning the process so soon.
But if you haven't thought about it before now, don't sweat it. "I think there's still plenty of room in most camps," he says.
There are many different types of camps parents can send their child to-day camps, resident camps or travel and trip camps. Each type of camp can be either traditional or specialty. In a traditional camp, campers are exposed to a variety of activities including theater, sports, and arts and crafts. Specialty camps focus on developing one specific skill or activity.
Like other businesses, camps have been affected by the economic downturn.
All for-profit camps have seen a decrease in attendance, Kaplan says, except in camps where the primary campers are from a higher socio- economic class.
"Since 9-11 there has been a downward trend to giving to not-for-profits. And camp is not an exception," Kaplan explains. "Camps that have suffered the most are camps that are serving the lowest income group in our society, the totally subsidized camps."
It's not a good situation for these kids or for society. Says Kaplan: "Camp is a neutral ground where children from different backgrounds learn to relate to each other."
Summer camp is an important part of a child's education, one that extends beyond the classroom walls, Kaplan explains. Currently, schools are forced to focus on academic subjects rather than social development.
"That doesn't leave much room for the other part of the education for a total person or individual growth," Kaplan says. "The kind of curriculum that camps have are what schools are moving farther and farther away from," such as developing self-esteem, independence and other aspects of social development.
As you wade through your summer choices, here are profiles of two types of camps to give you a better idea of the camp experience.
Specialty camp highlights life in the spotlight Harand Camp of the Theater Arts' has a philosophy it borrowed in part from poet John Donne: No man is an island, no man stands alone.
Harand camp staff welcomes each child to camp as though he or she is a part of the family. By first making a child feel welcome to the group, camp leaders say they can then work to bring the individual forward.
It works, says Sandy Kolkey, a former camper who now sends his two children to Harand each summer. "It's hard to describe the magic around the place."
The specialty theater camp teaches children ages 8-17 all aspects of musical theater, from on-stage acting and dancing to behind-the-scenes directions.
Harand, like many specialty camps, concentrates on musical theater.
"The focus everyday, most of the day is tied with theater," says Gordie Kaplan, executive director of the American Camping Association. "You're just not going to get that at a traditional camp."
The basics The camp, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, recruits year-round and takes applications through the beginning of each session. But the earlier you apply, the better, because space is limited. Harand's office is in Evanston, but its two three-week summer camp sessions are in Beaver Dam, Wis.
Specialty camps such as Harand cost more than traditional camps. On top of basic camp costs-
such as food and insurance-specialty camps offer professional instruction. Harand costs $2,200-$2,300 for three weeks, or $4,250 for the entire six-week summer session.
Harand is one of more than 2,300 camps in the United States that is voluntarily accredited by the American Camping Association. Accreditation means the camp has passed a set of 300 standards covering 10 areas. Once every three years, the camp is checked to see if it is maintaining standards. Accredited camps don't charge more, but it is an important distinction for parents to understand, Kaplan says.
"The benefit (of being accredited) is primarily that you've taken the steps to better prepare your camp in terms of safety, risk management and quality programming," he says.
At Harand, the tuition is all-inclusive, except for transportation. Fees cover the canteen, food, laundry, outings, professional instruction, scripts and housing.
Harand Camp does not offer camperships-scholarships applied towards tuition-but it does offer other family incentives. There is a discount for siblings attending the same session and returning campers who refer a friend can receive a $50 discount.
Staging 50 years Every morning, students take classes in dancing, acting and singing. The skills learned are put to use in the end-of-session performances. The pageant after the first three-week session is the larger of the two performances. Each class, divided by age, performs two 10-minute acts during the three hour show.
This year, in celebration of its 50th anniversary, Harand will be doing a "best of" pageant encompassing the favorite performances of the last 50 years.
And while the staff knows that not all of their campers will go on to careers in the spotlights, they believe the time spent on stage is invaluable.
"Not only just in theater, but in any area where you feel you have to accomplish something," says Janice Gaffin Lovell, Harand's co-director. "Getting involved in singing and dramatics will give [you] self-esteem and courage from within."
Summer service camp in Lake County occupies tweens For the past two years, eighth grader Amanda Gardiner of Lake Zurich, has spent her summer doing charity work.
Before she entered seventh grade, her mom found out about Summer of Service, a program partially sponsored by her employer, Abbott Laboratories.
Amanda's friends are not involved with the program, but she says that doesn't matter to her.
"I just tell them it's a place you get to go to do charity," she explains. "I like to go out and do stuff like that."
What do they do? The 10-week camp for students entering sixth through ninth grades, is really much more than a place to do charity work.
"Working parents didn't want youth to just hang out and watch TV all summer," says Gussie Monks, vice president and executive director of the Central Lake YMCA, which runs the national program locally. "Employers had done some research to find out what their employees needed. There was a huge gap in the tweens."
Abbott Laboratories' employees had been asking for a program for young teens-and the company discovered Summer of Service. At the time, the national program was not operating in Illinois. Abbott is part of the Northern Illinois Collaboration, a partnership of public and private businesses including state and local government agencies and public schools.
The collaboration agreed to hire the YMCA to run the program, which pairs up young people with community service projects. The students choose from a list organized by the YMCA. They could be working in food pantries, visiting senior homes or helping at an animal shelter.
Each summer, the YMCA hires an advisory staff to supervise, find the service sites and coordinate funding.
The YMCA runs three sites each week of the 10 weeks. Each site serves 40 kids.
The Summer of Service program was one of three 2003 winners of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress' Innovative Excellence Award. This national award is given annually to companies or organizations that innovatively address both the needs of employees and the business.
This program also works for the community. "I think it's an excellent opportunity for the middle school age," says Mary Gardiner, Amanda's mother. "There's a balance between doing good and having some fun."
In the two years Amanda has attended camp, she's worked in a food pantry, a nursing home, an animal shelter and at the Waukegan Boys and Girls Club. She says her favorite project was working in the animal shelter. "It's really fun," Amanda says. "We get to go there and play with all the dogs who are usually locked up in kennels."
The workings The program started as a pilot project in 2000, and served 300 sixth- through ninth-graders in Libertyville. In 2001, it expanded to include Buffalo Grove. In 2002, Waukegan was added. Last year, more than 1,000 kids were part of it.
Each summer the group learns how to work with others, set out a task and accomplish it. All this and a little career counseling, too. They get a day to learn from collaboration members about what each company does and what jobs they might hold in the future.
The responsibility for each project lies primarily with the children involved. The kids research their service projects, decide what they are going to do and how they are going to accomplish it. They divvy up the workload and figure out a budget. Each day, camp begins at 9 a.m. and finishes at 3 p.m. Extended hours are available early morning from 7 to 9 a.m. or later afternoon from 3:30 to 6 p.m.
A typical weekly schedule allots time for planning and execution of their project, exploring different careers and fun and games.
Here's a sample: The first day is an introduction to the program during which organizers set the stage for the work ahead. Next comes career day. Campers learn from a variety of professionals. For example, a chemist might come to talk about his or her job. Or the students will talk to a bicycle shop owner about running a store.
Days three and four are occupied with the community service projects. Day five is fun-canoeing, going to a water park or wall climbing. "They talk about what they want to do, and we set it up," says Monks.
It doesn't come cheap Parents register their children on a weekly basis for the camp, which runs from mid-June to late-August. Community residents pay $195 per week, while YMCA members and an employees of a sponsoring corporation pay $150. The cost covers all supplies and transportation. In both cases, the cost of camp is heavily subsidized by the collaboration's members-seven companies and two government agencies. They are: Abbott Laboratories, Allstate Corp., Baxter International, Discover Financial Services, Hewitt Associates, Kraft Foods, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, the Illinois Department of Human Services and School District 102.
Limited scholarships are available for students who cannot afford the full cost. "It's a very expensive program," says Monks. "Every year we seem to add a corporation to the partnership. Without the partnerships, we couldn't run the program on our own."
The Central Lake YMCA wants to add more corporate sponsors to open a fourth location.
For Gardiner, the program has been very rewarding.
All positives aside, Amanda says she thinks more coordination with those receiving the service might be beneficial. She remembers times when she was helping with a food drive and the woman told the staff to go away. "When we got to the place, she shut the door," Amanda says. She suggests back-up projects be available in case a project falls through.
Ultimately, though, she says she feels positive about the experience. "I think it's a really good choice for kids to join. If they just sit around all summer, they have a harder time at school because they didn't have a chance to get out and get all their energy out."
For information, call the Central Lake YMCA at (847) 367-6797 or visit www.centrallakeymca.org.
Ashley Ernst is an editorial designer for Chicago Parent and a freelance writer in Chicago.