with American Camp Association CEO Tom Holland
Written by: Pat James
Designed by: Hamza Butler
When it comes to summer camp, children don’t focus on much other than swimming, making friends and taking part in camp activities. But for parents, it’s hard not to think about the money coming out of their wallet.
Most camps in the United States offer scholarships as a way to help cut those costs. Staff writer Pat James spoke with Tom Holland,
the chief executive officer of the American Camp Association, about the benefits of camp scholarships and how they can help both parents and children.
Q: What was the purpose of the camp scholarship when it was originally designed?
A: In general, there are over 13,000 camps in the country and most of them have some sort of camp scholarship program — also sometimes called a campership.
… Most programs around the country offer some sort of financial aid program to campers. I think the goal of any program that has that offering is to make sure this opportunity of camp is available
to all children who want to take part in it, no matter their financial background.
Q: How influential are those donors and sponsors?
A: Oh, my gosh, they’re amazingly influential. Many donors take to individual camp programs around the country. That’s one way donors give. They go directly to the camp to give back to that camp so they can run their program. That is super specific on what the donor’s gift goes to. When they give to ACA, it’s really an open-ended gift toward a camp experience. That camp experience might be a residential camp program or it might be a day camp experience. It’s something that’s a little bit wider in reach, but what we can assure them is a child will have the experience of camp — camp being defined as a day camp experience, as a sports camp experience or as a residential camp experience, staying over night for some period of time at a camp.
Q: How much of the costs of camp do scholarships cover?
A: A wide range. You have programs that cover from about 5 percent to 100 percent of tuition. Some programs even offer gear and travel, those extra things they even pay for. You can probably go to more than 100 percent, because there’s extra add-ons — trying to get to the site, the gear a camper might need, like boots, a backpack or water bottles.
Q: How do camp scholarships help add to the diversity of camps?
A: It’s one of those pieces that really help with the diversity of the environment. … It opens up doors to children of all backgrounds to have this opportunity. That first step of the demographic piece is economic diversity — that’s what it really is addressing, making sure there is a layer of economic diversity throughout programs. From that, it trickles down to other diversity. The demographics that exist in camps are definitely made richer through these types of programs.
Q: When there is an application process, what’s it like?
A: It varies across the board by what folks are looking for, but usually the application for a child (focuses on) their interest in the program. A lot of camp directors want to make sure the match is right. There is a camp experience for each child, and they want to make sure the child wants to take part in their program.
Q: What should parents be aware of when applying for a camp scholarship?
A: I think the biggest part is making sure the camp is the right fit for their child. There are over 13,000 camps in the country, and there’s a camp for every child and every budget. So parents should really look to match with the programs that are going to be the best for their child. That’s where they need to start and then look into the financial aid offered by that camp, because in most cases they will be offering financial aid, and see if that match is right.
Written by: Hayley Fowler
Design by: Carolyn Bahar
High overhead costs for camps often have a direct impact on camper registration fees, making camp less affordable for the American middle class.
When Chloe Ganias was 8 years old, her mom made her a deal.
If she maintained three days of complete misery — meaning not one smile or laugh, or joy of any kind — at a week-long church sleepaway camp in northern California that summer, Chloe could call and Mom would come and get her.
“(Her older sister) Eleni had already been, and loved it, and I knew Chloe would love it,” Barbara Ganias says. “But man, she gave us a good fight.”
She never did call. And six years later, the Ganiases still have to plan their summer vacations around church camp.
For Barbara Ganias, the value of camp for both her girls has far outweighed the dollars spent.
But as increasing overhead costs for camps drive camper fees nationwide, something’s become apparent for most families — camp is a luxury.
A CHANGING LANDSCAPE
According to American Camp Association CEO Tom Holland, 62 percent of a camp’s revenue derives from camper registration fees.
He says for individual campers, the nationwide average weekly cost of attending day camp is $271, while overnight camps average $704.
Those weekly camper fees are factored into how much it costs to physically run the camp for an entire year, which can be anywhere from $790,000 to $1,300,000 yearly.
“Camp Lady” Patti Roberts,who has been helping families find camps for 21 years, says a lot of factors contribute to camper fees. Independently owned and operated overnight and day camps with better camper-counselor ratios, newer facilities and state-of-the- art equipment — in other words, luxury camps — often translate to higher camper fees.
“You’re talking about a socioeconomic class that can afford that kind of expense,” she says. “It definitely doesn’t cater to the mainstream of Americans — camp never has.”
Instead, Roberts says, local camps with corporate backing through the YMCA or Boys and Girl Scouts are more affordable. Those campers sleep in the woods with a tent and cook over a campfire, which doesn’t require the same amount of overhead costs as cabins with electricity and industrial kitchens.
But she also says camp looks a lot different today than it did 50 years ago.
Camp used to be just water activities, sports, art and theater. But now there are circus programs, water toys, climbing walls, recording studios and cooking lessons, too.
“Camps have changed with the time,” she says. “And with that, the price has gone up tremendously.”
That change also includes higher insurance premiums, upgraded technology — often required for sending emails from remote locations — and maintenance, says Leigh Longino, chief operating officer at Camp Corral, a free summer camp for military children headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina, with programs nationwide.
“(The facilities) are rustic. That’s not the kind of thing donors want to spend money on,” she says. “It does drive up the cost of camp.”
On top of such costs, minimum wage requirements have forced camps to react quickly.
“It’s a hit they have to pass on to the registration process,” she says.
THE PRICE OF QUALITY
Ganias says while she hasn’t seen the cost of camp change over the years, it does vary among the different types.
Day camps through the city recreation department are reasonable, she says, and church camp — well under $1,000 for one-week, all-inclusive — is extremely reasonable.
But more luxurious camps with updated facilities, new cabins, better camper-counselor ratios and better quality food ask more of families willing to send their children there.
Roberts says she represents some overnight camps in the Northeast that cost between $8- and $12,000 for a seven-week program. Certain areas of New York also boast $6- to $7,000 day camps for various lengths of time — it all depends on what they have to offer.
Generally speaking, Roberts says the facility isn’t quite the same with lesser-priced camps.
“I’m always a believer in life that you get what you pay for,” she says.
Longino, who also spent 20 years working with camps for the YMCA of the Triangle in North Carolina, says at YMCA Camps Sea Gull and Seafarer off the coast
of North Carolina — where she attended as a child and sends her own children — the camp markets itself with first-class properties, facilities and programs.
For instance, every three years they rotate their fleet of boats — not because there’s anything wrong with them, Longino says, but because that’s the standard they established.
She says the cost of attending such a camp for one month is about $4,000.
“The program design can really cause the cost of camp to fluctuate,” she says.
But that cost can be deterring.
“I am not sure if the cost of camp is indicative of the value,” Ganias says. “But I do worry that some camps are prohibitive for some families.”
But in the last 10 years, some camps have found ways to adapt to higher overhead costs without putting the financial burden on families.
Because most camps function for a mere seven weeks, Roberts says they’ve had to be clever about finding additional sources of revenue.
Some overnight camps are winterizing their cabins and hosting retreats for religious groups, schools and sports teams during the school year.
She says there’s one camp in the Adirondacks that markets itself for weddings, parties and reunions in the off-season, and another that opened its dining hall as a year- round restaurant.
Others have used such off- season opportunities to waive individual campers fees.
At Columbus Youth Camp in Ohio, Camp Director Todd Harris says they charge families on a sliding scale based entirely on income.
The camp is a nonprofit, run in conjunction with the Boys & Girls Club, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Girls on the Run and others in the area. The organizations share resources and combine strengths to run the various programs.
Harris says the income-based summer tuition fees pay for lunches, snacks, direct service staff, transportation and supplies.
“When that is in balance, the cost of physically running a camp and
paying administrative staff is supported by donations and rental fees,” he says. Rental fees, he says, are secured from weekend retreats and weddings during the school year.
Some camps also offer camp scholarships, or camperships. Holland says 95 percent of
overnight camps and 88 percent of day camps offer some form of financial assistance.
“There is a camp for every child and every budget,” he says.
But Longino says the scale for camperships has shifted. They’re no longer available for welfare families, but rather dual- income families earning less than $100,000 a year.
Day camps also qualify for tax credits, as camp counts as childcare while parents are at work.
Longino says families who factor childcare expenses into their weekly spending during the school year are often prepared to transfer those costs to the summer as well.
“Day camps really are the essence of childcare,” she says.
A LUXURY WORTH PAYING
But as much as cost plays a role, Hildreth Stafford — a mom of two teenage girls in Georgia who attend camp in western North Carolina — says the luxury of camp is worth every penny.
“It is obviously expensive, and each year we have to budget to make it work,” she says.
Roberts says camp is an experience unparalleled to anything else.
“Being teenage girls, having a place where they wouldn’t get distracted by boys, worry about their hair, clothes or makeup was important to me,” Stafford says about Camp Kahdalea, the all-girls camp she sends her daughters to yearly.
The technology-detox — a factor even at some of the most luxurious summer camps — is important as well.
Ganias says she’d replicate her daughters’ camp experiences, all of them, in a heartbeat.
“Every kid deserves the opportunity to discover more about him or herself through a camp experience.”
GRAPH INFORMATION SOURCE: American Camp Association
When Dave Johnson, 22, first started going to Camp High Rocks, he was allowed to bring a Walkman with him. Campers could listen to music before bed, while doing chores or during rainy days. But as Walkmans gave way to iPods, which then became iPhones, camp rules became stricter.
In order to preserve camp traditions and keep kids engaged with one another, most sleepaway and day camps have set limits
on technology. Some ban it altogether, while others allow phones to be used on bus rides to and from camp, like at Camp Ramah Nyack in upstate New York. Kids who bring a phone to sleepaway camp typically have to give it to camp directors at the beginning of the session, and get it back when they leave.
“We stopped allowing any sort of electronic devices a few years ago because technology progressed to where any basic music player could also have games, video or Internet capabilities,” Johnson says. “All of these capabilities have the ability to really keep kids disengaged with each other in favor of being engaged in a 3-by-4 screen.”
These rules make summer camp — a rite of passage for many American kids — one of the few times kids will spend an extended period of time without technology. Whether it is for a week, six weeks or six hours out of the day, the time away aids children’s social skills and confidence, and helps define the camp experience, camp staff and parents say.
Making the Cut
At Camp High Rocks, an outdoor adventure camp on
Cedar Mountain in western North Carolina, campers can’t bring any form of technology: no phones, no Kindles, no computers or video games. Campers’ days are full of canoeing, hiking, playing sports and doing arts and crafts, with little time for phone
use anyhow. Many go back to back throughout grade school; every
summer there is a ceremony for 5th year and 10th year campers,
with dozens participating each time, counselor Katie Daniel says. Because of this, most campers are familiar with the policy, and there are rarely problems with kids trying to sneak in technology.
“I’ve never really heard anyone talk about it at all; most kids really enjoy being in the moment at camp,” Daniel says.
She says the technology policy plays a large role in building camp community.
“I 100 percent believe that the connections that you make with other staff members and kids at camp are so much deeper and quicker to be formed in the camp setting than in any other experience I’ve ever had,” Daniel says.
Meals are eaten without phones in hand or on the table, and going without becomes the norm, she adds. When staffers go out on nights off, they check their texts but, for the most part, keep their phones out of sight. “It’s cool that it transferred into the real world,” Daniel says. “It’s not common anymore to not have your phone be an option.”
At Camp Ilahee, a girls’ sleepaway camp in Brevard, North Carolina, camp director Laurie Strayhorn agrees that cutting out technology is key to maintaining a camp community. Building a community from scratch each year can be tough, with people coming from lots of different places and building new friendships, Strayhorn admits. But when kids are forced to engage in face-to-face conversations, they learn to think a little more about the effect of their words, and cliques or divisions are less likely to form.
“I think now, because there are so few places where kids can escape from technology, that it’s one of the huge assets that camp offers this generation,” Strayhorn said.
Hannah Smith, who has been a camp counselor at Quaker Lake Camp in Climax, North Carolina, for three years, says she loves to
be technology-free during the summer. The experience allows kids to learn more about themselves, she says, and learn about others in a more meaningful way.
“They really connect and get to know people rather than seeing what they have to offer through a profile,” Smith says. “I really like it, and I think it says a lot about kids who come back.”
A Temporary Empty Nest
While camp gives kids a chance to test their independence and experience life without social media, it also forces parents to give up the constant communication to which they are accustomed. Most sleepaway camps allow campers
to stay in touch with their families through snail mail. A common practice at sleepaway camps is to let campers mail letters home, and let parents send notes through the mail or via email. Staff members print out these emails and put them in campers’ mailboxes every day. Some parents send emails daily, others a few times a session, Camp High Rocks counselor Katie Daniel says, “It really just depends on the family.”
Smith says that at Quaker Lake Camp, they avoid letting campers talk to their parents on the phone unless it is an absolute emergency. “If a kid [experiencing homesickness] talks to a parent, that’s usually it, game over, they’re usually going to go home,” Smith said. “When they talk to them it only makes the homesickness worse, and they usually then don’t get over it.”
This separation can cause anxiety for some parents, especially those who are used to knowing where their kids are at all times. Lise-Marie Wertanzl, a mother of two from South Florida, says she gets especially worried when her son attends wilderness camp with the Boy Scouts every summer.
“It’s not easy for the parents, especially when they’re actually camping out in the wilderness,” Wertanzl says. “It’s a little disconcerting – you wonder if someone got bit by a snake or if anything has happened.”
But, Wertanzl says despite her worries, she thinks it is great for her son to take time off from his phone and video games. Her daughter attends debate camp each summer, and during the day, she is not allowed to use her phone either.
“I think I’d go crazy without my phone,” Wertanzl laughs. “But I think it’s good for them to take a break from it once in a while.”
Jason Eder, a father from North Carolina, says he doesn’t mind
his kids using technology at day camps they attend, as long as it doesn’t become the main focus. His youngest son attends a jiu- jitsu summer camp, and campers can bring tablets to use during free time. “For daycare folks [tablets] can be a godsend, so I get it to that extent,” Eder says. “If there was a camp that was leaning on it too much, I would have a problem with that.”
He compares occasional technology time nowadays to watching a movie at camp, something he did when he attended camp as a kid, and says his son’s elementary school even allows tablets to be used at school. While Eder’s son hasn’t gone to a camp with no-technology rules, Eder says he would be OK sending him to one in the future. “He might not be as OK with it, but I would support the effort,” Eder says. “He might complain about it a little, but I think he would be OK.”
Sometimes, the break in communication can cause parents’ fears to get the best of them. Lynn Wygant, whose three kids all have been to sleepaway camp, and whose eldest returned as a counselor, found herself being the “worst nightmare parent” the first summer her kids went away to camp. Her youngest son, Jack, had been experiencing bad migraines before leaving, and when she got a call from camp saying he was fine but in the infirmary, she panicked.
Wygant and her husband, not able to talk to their elementary school-age son, per camp policy, decided to check things out for themselves. Already planning to take their boat out into the San Juan Islands near their hometown in Washington, they decided to go to Orcas Island, where Camp Orkila is located. Knowing where he might be, the Wygants anchored their boat, binoculars in hand. “We could see him sitting in the health hut looking kind of pathetic, so we went up and checked to see if he was OK,” Wygant said. “Of course he was fine, he was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, get out of here!’”
“If he wasn’t sick we wouldn’t have gone to those lengths; I think we would have trusted that everything would be OK. But since he was away for the first time, it was a concern that we couldn’t be there for him.”
Despite this worrisome first experience, Wygant says her kids all loved Camp Orkila. She is a huge proponent of taking a break from technology, as her kids did while at camp.
“I think it’s vital; I think it’s critical for their development,” Wygant said. “I wish it was mandatory more than once a summer. I think there should be a lot of time where kids get together without phones or computers and look at each other and engage in the moment without the constant distraction of checking their phones to see what other people are doing.”
The idea behind the rule is to move away from immediate gratification with constant communication, and to develop deeper relationships than kids are used to, Strayhorn says. At night, Camp Ilahee girls have “hang-out time,” and often counselors will introduce a topic of conversation. Usually, it starts out awkwardly, Strayhorn says. The girls aren’t used to not having something to look at, and have to adjust to reading people’s facial expressions and really listening to what the others have to say. After the first few days, they adapt, Strayhorn says, and usually wind up saying they love it.
“It gives them a break from trying to project a certain image on Instagram or Twitter, and then come home with almost a reset button.”
Wygant says her elder daughter came back from camp a different person; known as the “quiet, smart girl” at her small grade school, she was able to break out of her shell at camp. “It was a real defining moment for her; she could be the truest version of herself.”
Wygant’s younger daughter realized how lucky she was to
have such a great family during nightly “values sessions,” where counselors and campers would talk, similar to at Ilahee. Hearing other campers share stories about family and personal problems made her realize how good she
had it. “I think for her there was a realization that she was a lucky kid and a lot of her peers weren’t as lucky,” Wygant says.
Conversations like those are hard to have when phones can be used as a crutch, allowing kids to disengage from challenging topics. As technology continues to expand into every corner of our lives, camp remains one of the last true technology-free zones for kids.
Despite the difficulties that can arise for both parents and kids when faced with this sudden change in communication, getting away for a few weeks offers campers and camp staff a time
to grow and develop close bonds, without the distractions social media, texting and Internet access can bring.