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Summer camps thrive despite economic woes

- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009

In this ailing economy, it may seem as if luxuries would be the first thing slashed. For many families, the lavish vacation may be a thing of the past. Or perhaps this summer, the lawn service or the top-notch swim club will get the ax.

What's not on the chopping block is summer camp.

Despite the economic slowdown, many summer camps — both residential and day programs — say enrollment is the same or even more than it was heading into summer 2008. So when it comes to junior, weeks spent riding horses, learning to sail, going through astronaut training or enhancing lacrosse skills are non-negotiable.

"The camp experience is nearly 150 years old," says Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association. "We have been through many ups and downs, but the camp experience survives very well. The last money parents will cut is the money they spend on their children."

That may be because in families where both parents work, camp takes the place of school or child care over the summer. If the other choices are not being able to work or leaving the kids unsupervised, most families will gladly hand over the $250 to $1,000 weekly cost of camp.

Matt Bowden, communications coordinator for Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth (CTY), says that in the recession of the early 1990s, enrollment in that summer program actually increased.

Enrollment for 2009 is holding steady compared to last year, Mr. Bowden says. CTY has day and residential programs at 30 locations around the country. Students can take courses such as cryptology, Chesapeake Bay ecology and Russian history. A three-week residential camp session costs $3,360.

"Parents, particularly parents of older students, look at it as an investment in their child," Mr. Bowen says. He also points out that about 2,000 of the 10,000 students enrolled in 2008 received financial aid.

Larry Capps, CEO of Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., says enrollment for summer 2009 is up nearly 4 percent from this time last year. At space camp, campers pay around $799 for a six-day camp that features flight simulators, robotics training and rocket building.

One thing that has changed: Enrollment of foreign campers — particularly from India and China — is up, Mr. Capps says. Also affecting enrollment somewhat is the airline system — flight route changes and delays are making it harder for unaccompanied minors to easily fly to Huntsville, he says.

Fritz Seving, owner of Camp Fernwood, a traditional girls' sleepaway camp in Maine, says out of 215 spots in camp, he has heard from only two families whose daughters will not be returning. Camp Fernwood costs $9,800 for the seven-week session.

Mr. Seving agrees with Ms. Smith that camp endures, despite the economy. Camp Fernwood has been around since 1921. Mr. Seving says he used to hear stories from the camp's original owners about summers during the Depression.

"They talked about how they had around 30 girls here," he says. "They came with some kind of ration cards. They would collect all the kids and cards and go down to the train station to get the things they needed."

Also, in a world fraught with bad news, technology overuse and worry, who wouldn't want to unplug, swim in a lake and walk in the woods? It worked for Henry David Thoreau 160 years ago, and the lessons learned from communing with nature still ring true today.

"Our product is camp more like it was in the 1930s," Mr. Seving says. "Camp doesn't go in and out of fashion. The message is pretty timeless, yet pretty timely: Live simply, get close to nature, teach tolerance and unselfishness."

Nelson Bagnardi, executive director of YMCA Camp Letts in Edgewater, Md., says enrollment for summer 2009 is about the same as it was a year ago. Camp Letts is a relatively inexpensive camp option, with day camp fees about $230 a week and overnight camp about $695 a week.

However, Mr. Bagnardi says he has seen a change in the length of time children will spend at camp.

"We are seeing an increase in the number of children signing up," he said. "But a decrease in the amount of time they will be spending here. They might sign up for two weeks instead of four."

"Overall, I think there is a spike in the number of children going to camp," Mr. Bagnardi says. "People are realizing the value of giving kids an experience away from home and away from electronics."

Still, where there may have been a waiting list in flush times, there is now flexibility. Maria Bonaquist, an Oakton, Va., mother of two, put off sending in the deposit to hold a spot for her 13-year-old son to return to a 10-day overnight camp in Pennsylvania.

"I was planning on sending it eventually," she says. "But I was also prepared for them to tell me 'we're filled.'"

Instead, the camp director called Mrs. Bonaquist, inquiring about her son and assuring her it was OK to send the deposit and pay the balance whenever she got around to it.

The ACA's Ms. Smith says that is a sign of the times. Camps will fill up in 2009, but it might take more work on the part of camp directors to make it happen and more research on the part of parents to find the best fit at a fair price. There has been a shift in that more parents are looking for camp options closer to home or choosing day programs instead of pricier sleepaway camps.

"We've seen more directors going to camp fairs and information sessions," Ms. Smith says. "We've started seeing parents being more discriminate and deliberate in their decisions. We've seen a shift — people are not just consuming an activity, they are considering 'Is this a good investment?' It is always a good investment when you can send your children somewhere and they can learn independence and getting along with others."