The end of a summer tradition? Overnight camps struggle to survive COVID-19

Like many camps across the country, a Belwood, Ont., summer camp was forced to cancel its residential program this year due to COVID-19. The Ontario Camps Association says camps have been so hard-hit because of the pandemic and many are facing permanent closure.

Ontario Camps Association worries 800,000 Canadian kids will never go to camp again

Belwood Lodge and Camp is a residential summer camp dedicated to meeting the summer recreational needs of children, youth and adults with intellectual disabilities. ​ (Submitted by: Belwood Lodge and Camp)

The operators of Belwood Lodge and Camp say they have been providing "pure joy" for children, youth and adults with intellectual disabilities at summer residential camps since 1946.

The Belwood, Ont., summer camp, like many others across the country, was forced to cancel its residential program this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, a group representing camps across the country is warning that without financial aid, it could spell the end of a summer tradition for 800,000 campers — many of whom come from vulnerable populations or have special needs. 

Belwood Lodge and Camp past president, Sally Gunz, said as far as she knows, 2020 is the first time in Belwood's 74-year history that it has had to cancel a residential summer camp.

"It was heartbreaking. I was president while we were making the decision and it was probably the hardest thing we've ever done," Gunz told CBC News.

Belwood Lodge and Camp says it residential summer camps provide an exceptional holiday experience for participants, provides caregivers valuable respite time, and builds a foundation for an energetic staff to become future leaders and advocates. (Submitted by: Belwood Lodge and Camp)

She said the camp put off making the final call for as long as it could, holding out hope things would turn around. 

"We were hoping we could get two or three weeks in August, but of course that was back in March and early April, [and we had] no idea how long this was going to take."

On May 19, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced the cancellation all overnight camps this summer as the province tried to control the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fun for campers, a break for families

Gunz said in addition to providing joy for campers, the camp has served as important respite care for families over the years.

She said with the cancellation of overnight camps, they have implemented "a partial solution" in the form of a virtual camp.

"This is done by volunteers and they do it every day for an hour or two for six days a week in June, July and August," Gunz explained.

"This is at no cost to the people who are our normal campers because a lot of those people are suffering a lot financially as well."

Belwood Lodge and Camp says many participants and staff attend year after year, establishing lifelong friendships and creating a lifetime's worth of memories. The program is being done virtually this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by: Belwood Lodge and Camp)

The virtual camp features live programming, which includes social time, games, theme days, dances, coffee houses and performances, pageants, dances and more.  

"We've been hearing from families that they're grateful because a lot of the services for the intellectually disabled have been shut down, and so anything that gives any kind of respite for families and structure to their day is very gratefully received."

An 85-year-old woman would have been their oldest camper this year, Gunz said, noting, "She's been coming for many years."

'I miss seeing all my friends at camp'

Emma Pacheco is among the many campers who were left heartbroken because of the pandemic and the subsequent cancellation of overnight camps this summer.

"I miss seeing all my friends at camp, I miss swimming in the pool, I miss the awesome staff. I also miss our other programs," Pacheco told CBC News.

"I want to say [to my friends] that I miss them so much and I hope they are all safe. I hope I get to see them at camp in 2021"

Pacheo says the virtual camp does give her a chance to connect with her friends from camp.

"I like seeing my friends and talking to them. My favourite activity is coffee house where we get to show off our talents," she said.

Emma Pacheco was left heartbroken when overnight summer camps were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 'I miss seeing all my friends at camp,' she says. (Submitted by Alix Oates)

Camps taking insurmountable hit: OCA

Vice president of the Ontario Camps Association (OCA) Mark Diamond said of all Canadian industries, camps have taken one of the most insurmountable hits as a result of COVID-19.

He said camps, which make all of their money between May and October, have lost 100 per cent of their income.

"The typical camp, once they've been closed down, have no ability — unlike restaurants, bars or other small businesses — to open up and make any income," Diamond told CBC News.

Around half of the camps in his association are coping by going into debt, Diamond explained, noting it will probably take them three to five years to recover. 

"There's another half of camps, we're projecting about 39 per cent to 42 per cent, that will go under either this fall or next spring," Diamond said.

If we don't act soon, it's going to be the kids that are going to lose out.- Mark Diamond, vice president OCA

The OCA vice president said his association has been working with both the federal and provincial governments since May to try to get a sustainability fund for camps.

But while the governments have listened and agreed that camps are one of the hardest hit of all businesses, "for some reason neither government has been to take the next stage and actually provide a fund," said Diamond. 

Vice president of the Ontario Camps Association Mark Diamond many camps will not recover from the hit taken from COVID-19. (Submitted by Mark Diamond)

Services for the intellectually disabled lack attention

Meanwhile, Gunz laments what she sees as a lack of attention for organizations catering to the intellectually disabled.

"I think people don't necessarily know about our camp simply because we have been quietly and successfully going about our business for so many years and only people who directly sign up or their families will hear about us," she said.

"I hate to say this, but services for the intellectually disabled are sometimes near the bottom of the list of places that attract public attention in a time with so much need, particularly in the mental health arena.

"Yet we argue that if we can keep our youth, in particular, safe and with pleasing options, this will go a long way to getting them through the very difficult teenage and early 20s years," Gunz added.

This week alone, Diamond said, three camps contacted him to express their fears that if they don't get help soon they will never reopen. 

"My fear is the governments, although well-intentioned, are often reactive and not proactive and if we don't act soon it's going to be the kids that are going to lose out," Diamond said.

"Honestly my guess is that of the 2.2 million children that go to camp across Canada, if government's don't step up, I would say that 800,000 kids will no longer be at camp ever again.

"Of course it's always the little guy that gets hurt the most. Out of those 800,000 kids my guess is three quarters of them will be from vulnerable populations and special needs," Diamond added.


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