NEW YORK (AP) – It wasn’t just the managerial chances of seeing his best friends or even escaping months at home because of the coronavirus pandemic that made Rory Sederoff think 2020 would be one of his best summers ever.
This would be the 15th year of the Toronto teen in Camp Walden, a New York state sleep camp where he spends every summer since he was 3 months old. He had already started practicing the speech he was going to make during the late summer banquet, and imagined the exact tree on the waterfront he would call in his honor.
For 14-year-old Rory, whose parents work at Walden, the camp where he looks most like himself is disconnected from screens and open to new opportunities.
“I would do a lot of things this summer that I won’t really be able to do again,” he said. “It is a summer full of opportunities that will no longer happen. There is no way to get it back. It’s gone.’
Camp Walden is said to have opened this week, but like most night camps across the country, it will be closed this year due to virus-related state restrictions. For millions of children, losing camp is another in a list of missed childhood milestones and experiences, big and small, due to the pandemic.
And while some activities can be pushed or moved online, the camp experience has an expiration date. It does not translate digitally because it trusts that children are together, outside, step out of their ordinary life and into new challenges and fun. People who have experienced summer camp often have a ’10 for 2′ mentality, counting down the months all year round until they can spend their loved one in their ‘home away from home’ for eight weeks.
An estimated 20 million American children attend summer camp annually, and the $ 18 billion industry employs more than one million seasonal workers, according to the American Camp Association. The association has accredited more than 3,100 camps or is looking for accreditation in its network.
Strict policies in most camps restrict or prohibit the use of personal technology, promoting a sense of community and contributing to the camp’s uniqueness.
“They only look at each other, face to face, heart to heart, head to head,” said ACA Chairman Tom Rosenberg.
Rosenberg calls camp the optimal learning environment for social and emotional skills. Freshmen campers would learn independence and some basic confidence. For example, those entering their sixth summer may have developed leadership and relationship-building skills.
“It literally changes lives,” said Rosenberg. “You’ll come home differently.”
Camp Walden’s director, Robyn Spector, does not know life without a camp. This would have been her 40th summer there, and she’s held almost every role since starting as an 8-year-old motorhome. In the camp, ‘she learned how to be good at things. I have learned to be kinder. I met my husband. I brought my 12 week old kids. ‘
Spector does most of the hiring in the camp, which has about 500 campers and 270 staff each summer. She likes to be “part of something so special to more than 1,000 people every summer.”
Rosenberg acknowledged that attending sleep camp is a privilege, a privilege many children cannot experience because of the high price tag or because the camp tradition may not be known to them. He said reaching out to those kids is a focus for him and other camp directors.
Annabelle Bridglall, 10, is said to have spent her fourth summer this year at Forest Lake Camp in the Adirondacks with a scholarship program started about a decade ago and funded by the camp’s alumni. She is one of about 20 campers who have received funding this year to attend Forest Lake.
Forest Lake owners insisted on keeping the camp open until New York State announced restrictions on June 12 that prevented it. For Annabelle, who lives in the Bronx, the news was devastating.
“I love camping and I feel like I’m missing something,” she said.
She says she will miss being on the tables cheering after meals. She will miss Sunday campfires and activities she says she would never have done otherwise: horseback riding, riflery, woodworking. “You have to be there to see the magic of the camp,” she said.
Andy Pritikin, owner of southern New Jersey day camp Liberty Lake, was thinking of kids like Rory and Annabelle when he decided to continue this summer, albeit with big changes.
“These kids who go to a sleep camp, it’s like there is a death in their family,” said Pritikin. “They are in grief mode.”
Between 500 and 600 children – about 80% of a normal summer – will visit Liberty Lake when it opens in July. Pritikin has doubled its nursing staff, strengthened maintenance and food staff, built handwashing stations, and purchased the personal protective equipment required by the state.
He said he is likely to lose money this summer because of all health and safety concerns, but as long as the state allowed day camps, this was his way of helping.
“This is a summer when kids can regain their childhood,” he said. “These kids are in a situation they don’t even realize. It’s just like Groundhog Day. ‘
Pritikin recently took more than 100 families on tours of the camp, he says. Usually, parents have probing questions about the camp’s programs and what makes it special. This year, he says, parents are interested in just three things: bringing their kids outside, away from screens, and interacting with other kids.
On a recent tour, a young boy looked longingly at one of the camp’s giant playgrounds; in recent years, kids on tours are said to have just run there and started playing. This time the boy stayed where he was and looked at his parents. “Mama, we can’t go to the playground, can we?”
Pritikin said the moment was heartbreaking.
“These kids remind me of a soldier returning from two years of active duty. They are shocked, “he said. “They’ll enjoy every aspect of what we’re doing here, even from a watered-down, COVID-19 version of the camp.”
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