Summer camps are facing a unique season with some closing down for the first time in their history others offering virtual camps online and some offering their properties as emergency space if needed during the COVID-19 pandemic. /Photo submitted by Scouts Canada

Camps prepare for uncertain summer 

By Sue Tiffin

Should Kilcoo Camp in Minden remain closed this summer due to the spread of the novel coronavirus in Ontario it would be the first time in the camp’s 88-year history it experienced a closure – the camp remained open through the Second World War and through a polio outbreak that occurred on the grounds in 1947.

The situation is one that is “wait and see” said camp director David Latimer noting that information related to how the coronavirus affects kids and how it is impacting the province changes daily.

“The bottom line for us is we are planning as if camp is opening” said Latimer. “We’re going to plan as if camp is opening and we’ll certainly be ready if that is not the case.”

In communicating with their camper families Kilcoo Camp has to date heard of only two cancellations of about 650 people who had been planning to take part in camp this summer.

“They all want camp to happen” said Latimer. “Our communication with them is that if we can do this safely for the safety of your kids for the safety of Minden then we’ll do that. If public health deems we can’t do it then we won’t. We’re pretty much at peace with that.”

School groups that would normally already be attending Kilcoo Camp are not currently doing so and staff hired before Christmas that was to be there May 1 is on hold. Latimer said he has told staff the camp is unsure of a future this summer but they have said they’ll wait to see if even August might be a go. He said he’s pleased with the government’s response to student needs with emergency benefits announced last month.

Although Kilcoo could look different this year – Latimer suggested fewer campers restrictions on movement outside of camp for both staff and campers quarantine before and after camp sessions and other regulations deemed necessary by provincial and local public health directives – it won’t be virtual. Latimer said online school over the past two months has already resulted in more screen-time for kids and said Kilcoo Camp has a culture that includes a no-cellphone policy. Instead the camp is hoping to be open for a full experience in July and August.

“Right now we’re looking at being open” he said. “I would say each day changes some days yeah some days no. We’re very cautiously optimistic. But yeah I really think that that kids are going to need camp so much.”

Camp Towhee which would have been hosting its 52nd summer camp for children and youth with learning disabilities and mental health experiences this year will be offering virtual programs instead.

“In light of the ongoing and evolving COVID-19 pandemic the closure of non-essential services likely until the end of June strict directives to remain home and exercise social distancing Child Development Institute made the difficult decision in April that the Towhee Camp program in Haliburton would not be operating this upcoming summer” Laurie Marsan director of clinical services for Child Development Institute told the Echo. “In following the assessments and guidance of Public Health officials we knew that we could not adequately complete preparations (that begin in April) provide staff training/onboarding and operate the camp programs in a manner that would be safe for campers staff or the community at large.”

The summer season for Towhee usually begins with supervisor and then staff training in the second and third weeks of June with the first round of campers arriving at the end of June for Towhee’s first of three sessions according to Marsan.

“Each year as soon as September rolls around the Towhee director is already hard at work planning for the next summer of programming” she said. “Towhee is all about intentionally creating the space that our campers need to be safe and their most authentic selves. This requires continuous attention and adaptability. Beginning in March as COVID-19 was evolving in Ontario we began to develop a contingency plan for alternative programming.”

A manager of therapeutic recreation programs and two assistant camp directors will lead virtual programming this summer.

“The ‘magic’ of Camp Towhee is found not only in its physical place – it is also found in the community that gets created there year after year” said Marsan. “To assist us in this virtual program development we have created a set of surveys to collect both parent/guardian and camper input. In keeping with the spirit of camp we are looking to launch a virtual camp with a campfire and songs as well as other camp traditions that make our programming so special.”

Summer camps across the province are working to offer virtual camps this summer preparing to close or waiting for further direction from the province about a possibility of opening./Photo submitted by Scouts Canada

While the virtual camp experience has been responded to positively parents have also reached out to the camp expressing their sadness with the cancellation and their support for the decision.

“We have had many families indicate that the closure did not come as a surprise and express understanding of the need to close camp this summer” said Marsan. “By and large families expressed that Camp Towhee is a treasured and special experience for their children that will be a loss this summer.”

Camp Towhee was closed once before in the summer of 2006 due to a large storm knocking out power as it passed through Haliburton and surrounding areas. One camper at that time remembers being sent home after just one week of his session.

“Towhee remained closed for an entire week before luckily being able to re-open and bring its campers and staff back for the final week of that three-week session” said Marsan. “This decision was made with considerable consideration to camper and staff safety which is always Towhee’s highest priority. In the case of Covid-19 safety cannot be guaranteed and thus Towhee must adapt in order to provide the best possible service under these unique circumstances.”

Like other camps around the province Scouts Canada began planning for this year’s summer camps last winter hiring staff opening registration for campers and organizing supplies and permits. Haliburton Scout Reserve a 5000-acre property around Lake Kennabi is usually open to groups of Scouts aged 11 to 26 – up to 250 campers each week – but will be closed this year for the first time since 1947.

“We began developing an alternate plan for our summer camp programs and camp properties after the initial two-week temporary closure of all our camps and facilities in March was extended in accordance with the direction of the government and public health authorities” said Kalie McKenna director property operations Scouts Canada. “Nothing is more important to Scouts Canada than the safety and well-being of our youth members volunteers and staff. Following the direction of the government and health officials Scouts Canada camp properties and other facilities are temporarily closed until Aug. 31.”

Staff and volunteers are still visiting properties for maintenance site inspections and security while following proper physical distancing practices.

Though Scouts Canada has cancelled summer camp programming this year McKenna said “during this time of increased need our membership continues to actively seek ways to give back.”

Scouts Canada’s Camp Woods in 70 Mile House B.C. and Blue Springs Scout Reserve in Acton Ont. will provide shelter and isolation for migrant workers while the 1st Cochrane Scout Hall in Cochrane Ont. will serve as a COVID-19 assessment centre for the town’s emergency response team. Additionally McKenna said Camp Samac in Oshawa will set up safe shelter for individuals experiencing homelessness in the Durham Region in partnership with the Region of Durham and community organizations.

“With extensive properties across Canada and all in-person activities on hold we are in a unique position to work with community partners and government agencies to provide much needed facilities and properties to support a diverse range of emergency response and relief efforts” she said noting she can be contacted by government or community agencies seeking additional facilities for emergency response and relief.

Scouts Canada a not-for-profit organization has also applied for grants to help employ camp staff to create virtual summer camp programming.

“We hope to offer an exciting camp-from-home virtual summer camp experience” said McKenna. “Additionally as Scouts Canada has put in-person activities on hold groups are meeting virtually and engaging in free Scouting at Home programming that encourages youth – both Scouts and non-Scouts – to keep developing well-rounded skills through fun activities while practicing physical distancing.”

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