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Happy campers, worried parents

Economy’s stresses brings more kids to camps, and more financial aid, too

POSTED: June 7, 2009 12:30 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Camp Director Michelle Cash leads a group of campers in a song at Elachee Nature Science Center.

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With all the news about the crumbling economy, Liz Hansen decided to cut out the option for her 7-year-old son, Smith, to go to day camp this summer.

Though Hansen said she and her husband's finances are "pretty safe right now," their incomes are fixed and day camp is an unnecessary expense for the family.

"I just felt like it was time to go ahead and start saving a little more and cutting back, just in case, just because of the hoopla with the economy," Hansen said.

Overall, the economy's effect on the way parents like Hansen monitor their expenses has not put a dent in attendance at Hall County's summer day camps.

Registration numbers at some of the larger summer day camp programs in the area — the Boys and Girls Clubs of Hall County, the YMCA and Gainesville Parks and Recreation — have been much like they were in non-recession years. In some instances, registration numbers have exceeded last year's, camp representatives say.

Since the day camp at The Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County opened two weeks ago, between 275 to 300 kids have enrolled, according to an estimate from the organization's Chief Professional Officer Joe Ethier.

And while some children who normally come to the Boys & Girls Clubs camp are not attending this year, the void they left behind at 1 Positive Place has been filled with new campers, Ethier said.

It may be the price of the Boys & Girls Clubs camp that lures parents. An entire summer of day camp costs $100 at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County. The organization charges half that for its teen summer program.

"We run an excellent summer program while still being the cheapest game in town," Ethier said.

The low cost of the camp is the first reason Bianca Harrison listed for sending her 9-year-old daughter to the Boys & Girls Clubs for the past three years. The club is convenient to her daughter's school and is where all of her friends go. But price is priority, she said.

"A lot of people are taking their kids to the Boys & Girls Clubs because it is cheaper," Harrison said.

But attendance at Camp Elachee and the Hall County Community Branch of the Georgia Mountains YMCA has not suffered, despite the fact the YMCA's weekly fees are 75 percent of the summerlong fee at the Boys & Girls Clubs.

At Elachee Nature Science Center's Camp Elachee, attendance levels at this week's "Rock Hounds" camp were 110 percent of what they were last year, said Lavon Callahan, director of communications at Elachee.

"(The increased participation) is surprising to us," Callahan said.

Jonquise Thomas, program director at the Hall County Community YMCA, said so far the YMCA has a total of 404 day campers this year. The number is up from about 280 last year. Attendance at the YMCA's camps has been so high that the camp's directors opened up a new program this summer, Thomas said.

But Thomas said the YMCA is also reaching out to parents more than ever this year, knocking off nearly half the cost of camps for "a lot" of them.

"We have to work with the economy," Thomas said. "If our parents are struggling, we have to help our parents - we're willing. If the parents lose their jobs, we call and say, ‘Hey, what can we do?'"

At the YMCA, the economy is affecting parents who may not have ever struggled financially before.

Thomas, who was also a site director at one of the YMCA's after school programs, said he has seen the economic climate put stress on parents he considered wealthy.

"I've seen ... a lot of my parents that were wealthy that actually had to lose their job or got laid off, how bad they're struggling," Thomas said. "A lot of parents now, their eyes are opening and (they're) saying, ‘Wow, this is happening to me.'"

Parents of YMCA campers who are losing their jobs still need some sort of day care for their children, Thomas said.

"We're wanting to care for those children, that's why we're willing to work with the parents," he said.

Some camp representatives say they expected, and planned, for the recession to have an effect on local parents. Although operation costs at Elachee Nature Science Center went up this year, the center's officials decided against raising the fee for children to attend its summer day camp.

"We needed to keep it as affordable as possible," Callahan said.

Ethier said the Boys & Girls Clubs offered free spots at its day camp to some of the community's youth service agencies that may have a child in "desperate need."

"We knew 2009 was going to be a tough year and that 2010 was going to be even more challenging," Ethier said.

Anticipating that the economy would affect its summer camp, the board of directors for Gainesville's Parks and Recreation Department allocated $10,000 of its Children at Play fund — a fund usually reserved to provide financial help to children who want to participate in sports programs — to provide financial assistance for the children who attend the department's summer camps this year, said Julie Butler, marketing coordinator for the department.

"And we have spent it," Butler said.

Like the YMCA, the parks department is offering financial assistance this year to parents who did not need it in the past, Butler said. The camp's scholarships cover up to 90 percent of the department's weekly camp rate — $70 for Gainesville residents and $80 for county residents — for kids that live in the city and qualify, she said.

"We saw that this year, more than any year in a long time, that our community might need a little extra help," Butler said.

Ethier and Butler both said that charitable donations have decreased in the recession, but not to the point where the changes have significantly affected available scholarship money.

Some of the regular donors to Elachee and the Boys & Girls Clubs give money that is specifically designated for helping children afford summer camp.

But Ethier said the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County is bracing for more difficult days ahead and looking for ways to make the shrinking resources go farther.

"We've had to maximize and spread the wealth with fewer dollars than we had to allocate last year," Ethier said. "Have we turned a kid away because of it? No."

He said the organization is searching for more ways to collaborate with other nonprofit organizations that serve youth. This year, the organization teamed up with the YMCA for a summer day camp program at Jones Elementary, a move Ethier said may help both the organizations serve more kids and conserve money at the same time.

"We've had to take measures to more effectively deliver programs and services and better use our dollars," Ethier said.

The next 12 to 18 months will be challenging for all nonprofits that serve youth in the community, Ethier said. In particular, such agencies will have to find new ways to pool resources to serve children as the recession continues, because cutting programming for children who need it is not an option, Ethier said.

"We have too many kids to fail them," he said.



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