Summer camps increase access again through influx of COVID relief money



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Summer camps and other enrichment programs open this week with increased numbers of children participating.

COVID-19 relief monies have enabled Meriden officials to renew a program launched last year, in which the city offered vouchers, valued at $350 each, allowing local students to attend two-week-long summer programs at local camps free of charge. The overall funding set aside for this year’s “Get Kids to Camp” program is $600,000. 

Summer camps and programs in Meriden are not the only programs poised to welcome greater numbers of youth. Other state funding — through Connecticut’s share of federal American Rescue Plan Act monies — has been utilized to enhance other programs as well.  According to the state Department of Education, some $12 million of that department’s COVID-19 relief funds has been distributed to 200 programs across the state to increase quality and accessibility.

In Meriden, multiple programs have received such funds, including the Boys & Girls Club of Meriden, for its Cuno Camp and Camp BGC programs, Girls Inc. for its Strong, Smart & Bold Summer Camp program, and the Meriden-New-Britain-Berlin YMCA’s Mountain Mist Day Camp program. Individual programs’ grants have averaged around $25,000. 

In Wallingford, Ulbrich Boys & Girls Club also received funding, as did the Spanish Community of Wallingford. In Southington, both YMCA Camp Sloper and Camp Naciwonki are among this year’s grant recipients. 

In Meriden, three city-run sites — Baldwin Pond Park, Habershon Park and Thomas Hooker Elementary School — are also recipients of state funding.

John Benigni, chief executive officer for the Meriden-New Britain-Berlin YMCA, said the agency has welcomed around 650 students to its summer camp sites for the session that started on Monday. Benigni anticipates later sessions will average more than 700 campers. 

Through the voucher program and other funding the agency is looking to remove barriers to camp participation, including financial burdens and lack of transportation. Some of the funding is used to cover transportation costs. Other funding will be used to extend program hours, Benigni explained. 

Benigni said participation in summer camp definitely has an impact. 

“The more kids that are active, that have something to do over the summer, the better prepared they are for the start of school,” he said. 

The students will have the benefits of socializing with peers and instructors over the summer, “learning how to be good citizens out of camp,” which Benigni said will help them “learn how to be good citizens in the classroom.”

While funding for vouchers and other program enhancements in the future remain questions, leaders like Benigni say they will continue to look for ways to make summer camp accessible. 

“The YMCA believes in turning no one away for inability to pay,” Benigni said. 

Summer camp slots are still available, for two-week sessions from now until late August. Benigni recommends families call 203-235-6386 for more information. 

Southington-Cheshire

Mark Pooler, chief executive officer for the Southington-Cheshire Community YMCAs, is optimistic about the grant’s impact on attendance at the camps his agency runs. 

Summer camp participation dwindled greatly in 2020. The following year saw a return to normal enrollment. Pooler said this summer his agency has seen a healthy increase in summer camp registrations. He anticipates some 4,000 children will take part in programs at sites including Camp Sloper and Camp Naciwonki.

Pooler attributed that in large part to the camps being able to offer more scholarships with the grants. The programs themselves will improve, with more field trips and special guests slated. The agency has also entered into a partnership with Cheshire Academy to provide swim lessons, Pooler said. 

Meriden vouchers, staffing challenge

In Meriden, Parks & Recreation Director Chris Bourdon said the city has definitely distributed more vouchers than last year. Bourdon attributed that to the longer window of time during which the vouchers were available for families. 

Bourdon didn’t have finalized figures for how many were distributed. 

The city is weathering staffing challenges at its own recreation facilities. For example, on Monday, Bourdon covered a lifeguard shift at Hubbard Park pool. 

City recreation staff have been working hand-in-hand with school department and health department staff to ensure that programs continue at indoor facilities during inclement weather, Bourdon explained.

Without those partnerships, Bourdon said, the city would have had to cancel programs on rainy days.

Bourdon encouraged families to utilize the vouchers. All five participants, he said, “are great programs.” 

This year’s program expansion comes after what officials described as a successful summer initiative in 2021. 

Report shows gains

Statewide researchers with the Connecticut COVID-19 Education Research Collaborative assessed the impact of that expanded programming. According to a report issued by the group, Connecticut’s 2021 Summer Enrichment Initiative allowed more than 108,000 students statewide to attend summer camps, which was an increase over the previous year, during which participation was significantly reduced due to the pandemic. The report’s authors wrote that one reason for the increased participation “is likely the scholarships and fee waivers that the Summer Enrichment funds made available.”

Close to 39% of all camps that participated in the initiative offered some form of financial assistance, whether scholarships or fee waivers to all of their attendees. More than half of students who attended camps last year had received such aid. 

Researchers noted some of the goals in enhancing local programming. The first goal was to help students “resocialize with one another and have fun outside their homes” after having experienced long periods of social isolation and increased anxiety.

Officials also hoped the expanded opportunities “would spark students’ excitement for and help ready them to return to in-person school” last fall. About half of the site supervisors surveyed for the study reported last year’s programs were “very effective” in helping students prepare for, and become excited for, school that fall. 

Reporter Michael Gagne can be reached at mgagne@record-journal.com.



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