Fewer kids off to Manitoba summer camps as staff shortages, COVID concerns affect numbers
Sunshine Fund still has money available to help send kids to camp this year, director says
After two years of pandemic restrictions, camping directors across Manitoba expected a tsunami of campers to sign up for a quintessential summer activity — overnight camping — but registration is lower than expected, with some camps running under half-capacity.
Some camps reduced the numbers themselves. A lack of adequate certified staff like lifeguards and health officers reduced the number of available spots for some overnight camps.
"We were only able to open up as many spots at camp as we have staff available. So we had to first find staff and then make sure that we were able to host the kids over the summer," said Chris Buffington, executive director of Camp Arnes, in Manitoba's Interlake.
Buffington, who says campers are now on a wait-list, said the number of campers before the pandemic was four times higher than it is now. The camp is still seeking workers for nine categories of jobs, including lifeguards, camp nurses and cabin leaders, according to its website.
At least three camps said they had challenges securing the lifeguards and health officers needed to invite more campers.
"Normally, I have three lifeguards on my beach. Now that they have one, we have a lot of split swims, you know, where we just have 20 kids at a time rather than a large group," said Don Roe, director of Gimli Bible Camp, which is also in the Interlake.
Roe said it takes several years to build up the staffing for a camp, and the the pandemic dealt a serious blow to that staffing that will take years to fix.
Roe said his camp is probably at 40 per cent capacity and they have enough cabin leaders to operate, but those staff members are all giving 100 per cent all the time.
"If this happens all summer long, they're probably going to get tired. But again, the kids are going to have fun — the big thing is, how much attention can we give them? How much relationship-building can we do?" said Roe.
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Reduced capacity due to staffing is just one of the reasons fewer kids in Manitoba are in camps this year. In some situations there is space for campers, but directors aren't sure why kids haven't turned up.
Manitoba Pioneer Camp, held near Kenora, Ont., is just about half full, though it was expected to be closer to 65 or 70 per cent, said Neil Steward, the camp's executive director.
"June is normally a big bump month where we see a number of campers sign up, and we just haven't really seen that," he said.
Steward said based on conversations he's had with parents, there were two main reasons for reduced registrations. The first was apprehension about COVID-19.
"Some of them are like, you know, we'd just rather wait a little bit longer before we put our kids in with a whole bunch of people," said Steward.
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Steward also said a number of other kids are travelling to visit other family members they haven't seen in a while.
Several directors said uncertainty early in the year as to whether there would be any summer camps, or what the conditions would be, caused them to open registrations later than usual and could have affected who signed up.
Camp Massad turned away 16 campers, at a cost of about $40,000 to $45,000 in revenue, because they weren't vaccinated, said Daniel Sprintz, executive director of the camp, just north of Winnipeg Beach.
Sprintz said by the time the province dropped those pandemic restrictions, he had already turned the campers away, and the parents who already signed up their kids expected a camp where everyone would be vaccinated.
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Evan Andrew, director of brand revenue at Sport Manitoba, said its three-week summer camp, which is in its fourth year, is now running at 80 per cent capacity. In previous years, it would have been full, he said.
Andrew said the camp didn't raise its fee, but was forced to remove an early bird special due to increased costs.
"We didn't want to try to pass those along to the families, but at the same time, obviously [we're] trying to break even, or as close to that as possible, as a non-profit organization," he said.
Not a money issue for all
Kim Scherger, executive director of the Manitoba Camping Association, said the falloff in camping registrations this year is reflected in fewer applications for camp subsidies, even though help is ready and waiting.
Children who need money for camp can access it through the Sunshine Fund, which is administered through the Manitoba Camping Association. Scherger said the demand this year is well below what they've seen previously.
"In 2019, we sent 641 kids to camp for a week of summer camp, and that cost us about $225,000," Scherger said.
It covered the cost of sending just over 100 kids in 2020 and 2021, when the COVID-19 pandemic limited options for camps.
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Though the Sunshine Fund expected a wave of applications this year, that hasn't materialized.
"At the end of June, we were just hovering around the 300 mark of how many kids we were sending to camp through the Sunshine Fund. And that amount was about $130,000 that we were spending through the fund," Scherger said.
"So I guess part of my message here, too, is that we still have funding for this year."
Scherger said funding is still available for accredited camps listed on Manitoba Camping Association's website.
"We really would love to encourage parents to apply to us to access that funding," she said.