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Ken Robbins: What's lost when camps close? $150M and so much more

Jillian Lynch

This op-ed appeared in the Tuesday, July 21 New Hampshire Union Leader.

FOR OVER a century, camp has been a summertime staple, nowhere more so than in New Hampshire. Every year, as camps help shape the lives of over 150,000 young people, New Hampshire’s camp industry generates millions of dollars in revenue and supports countless jobs. In 2020, however, every camp in the state is either shuttered or profoundly constrained due to COVID-19. Without direct and measurable support, the survival of this vital industry and cherished tradition is in serious doubt.

Camps emerged in the 1800s, as the country became increasingly urbanized and industrialized, to safeguard a connection to and appreciation of the outdoors. That need has only increased. Today, camps are our children’s respite from busy schedules, academic expectations, and ever-present technology.

No aspect of life is immune to the pandemic, and while they may be less susceptible to the health threats, our children have borne the brunt of its associated effects. Separated from friends and mentors, they have endured the loss of school, athletics, and recreation.

As summer begins, our children should be rejoicing in the start of camp — moving into cabins, reuniting with friends, forming new relationships, playing games, jumping in lakes. Instead, most remain home bound, suffering the loss of another cornerstone experience. Half of New Hampshire’s day camps and more than 95% of its overnight camps are closed this summer.

What is being lost?

For children, opportunities for foundational social and emotional development, such as independent decision-making and self-reliance, environmental conservation and stewardship, and principled and ethical participation in communities. These pivotal lessons for the next generation of parents, educators, and leaders will go unlearned this summer.

Counselors are forfeiting what, for many, is their first consequential job. They will miss the opportunity to shoulder real responsibility, another crucial step on the road to a productive adulthood.

And families continue to struggle to find meaningful and affordable childcare, not just a safe spot, but a place where their children are valued and celebrated. This summer, parents will watch their children continue in their isolation and strain to help them make sense of an inexplicable and scary future.

None of this is hyperbole. These are the thoughts oft-repeated in families’ letters to New Hampshire camp directors, as camps announced they could not open, whether out of an abundance of caution, economic infeasibility, or state guidelines that are profoundly incompatible with a given camp’s programming.

Now camps are frightened for their futures. Some worry their doors may never re-open, especially if COVID-19 persists into 2021. Across New Hampshire, camps will suffer a revenue loss that approaches $150 million this year alone. They will continue to confront fixed expenses such as property taxes, utility bills, insurance premiums, and payroll.

Unlike other businesses, which generate some revenue year-round, most summer camps generate all their income in eight to ten weeks each summer. A majority of New Hampshire camps now face the unique challenge of going almost two years without income and no break in their fixed costs.

The state’s non-profit, Main Street, and childcare relief funds, while accessible to some camps, were not designed to meet the distinctive needs of businesses that rely exclusively on summer income to sustain year-round needs. Camps that battled to the brink in an effort to open this summer found themselves past deadlines to seek funding after it became clear they could not operate in 2020. Today, those camps have few or no options for relief.

There is no doubt camps are a critical component of the network of care that New Hampshire families rely on. But camps are so much more. They are the beloved homes where we become the best possible versions of ourselves. Those of us who hold warm memories of our summers as campers and counselors or have witnessed the transformative effect on our own sons and daughters know that to our core.

Now is the time to step up and support New Hampshire camps, which have persevered through wars, a depression, and other health crises. It is not a question of will or ability, but of means. Our hope is the state will take financial steps to ensure our camps — part of a vital industry that supports our communities economically and emotionally — endure and thrive long beyond this pandemic challenge.

Ken Robbins is the director of Camp Kabeyun, a 97-year-old residential summer camp in Alton Bay, and serves as president of the New Hampshire Camp Directors Assoc., which represents 160 licensed camps in the state. He lives in Alton Bay.

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