Camp Cope

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New York YMCA camps pledge to raise more money for camper scholarships, and lower fees for low-income parents.

The New York YMCA Camp in Huguenot, N.Y., pledges to raise four times as much money as last year for financial aid. For the first time, the Renbrook Summer Adventure day camp in West Hartford, Conn., is accepting credit card payments. And the Triple-R Ranch, an ecumenical Christian day and residential camp in Chesapeake, Va., has eliminated some activities.

Those are some of the measures that summer camps are taking to offset an expected downturn in enrollment this summer and an increase in families seeking financial help.

Sean Nienow, director of the National Camp Association – a free, online summer camp referral and advisory service – predicted that the summer “head count” will be about the same as last year, but shorter sessions for many campers will mean that the number of “camper hours” for the season will be down.

“To make that up,” he said, camps would “need a higher camper count.”

Nienow said that camps are “being creative and aggressive about getting in business” and doing things they’ve never done before: offering “unofficial, unpublished” shorter sessions only to families who request them; setting up credit card payment plans for camp f

ees, rather than requiring payment in full before arrival; and “extending early bird registration discounts from the usual January or February up until May 1 – almost to when camp begins.”

Camps are moderately optimistic that such measures will protect them from the most severe impacts of the recession. “No one is recession-proof but we, historically, have been recession-resistant,” said Dawn Swindle, a spokeswoman for the American Camp Association (ACA).

Though the same number of campers this year might still lead to less revenue because of shorter stay, some camp directors are looking beyond tried and true incentives like discounts and partial scholarships (“camperships”) to trim costs and entice campers.

Sanborn Western Camps in Colorado struggled to attract new clientele this year, but a capital campaign helped them keep many returning campers.

Tiered Fees, More Scholarships

A few months ago, directors at the New York City YMCA Camps, thought, “If this [economy] is as bad as it looks … we’re going to have a lot of additional families asking us for scholarships,” said Wheaton Griffin, executive director of the organization’s sleep- away camps. “We wanted to get out in front of that.”

The sleep away camps, which served 3,433 youths last year, have done several things.

Through the New York YMCA’s statewide “Strong Kids” fundraising campaign, the camps have pledged to raise $400,000 for financial aid this year – four times as much as last year. The additional money will make increases possible both in the number of campers receiving funds and in the dollar amount awarded to some campers.

“A lot of parents are saying, ‘Could you do a little more for us this year?’” Griffin said.

The YMCA has also made changes in its three-tiered tuition structure, which allows parents to pay the amount they believe they can afford for the two-week sleep-away camps. This year, the lowest fee ($978) is about 10 percent lower than last year’s bottom rate, and for the first time includes a camp T-shirt and photo. The full rate is $1,378 for two weeks.

By mid-April, nearly equal numbers of applicants had chosen each of the three rate options, Griffin said.

The camps also have been developing partnerships with organizations that foot the bill to send kids to camp. This year, the National Military Family Association’s Operation Purple is paying 100 percent of the top-tier tuition rate for the 200 children it has placed at the YMCA camps.

Staffing might be trimmed as well. “If the number of campers decreases, that’s going to give us an opportunity to lower staff costs and food costs and things that are only generated when campers are here. So, right now, we’re hiring for a full camp, but we are ready to pull back if we have to,” Griffin said.

Buy now and save: The Triple-R Ranch website promotes discounts.

What the camps will not do, he said, is cut out activities. “We made that decision early on.”

Contact: Wheaton Griffin, New York YMCA Camps, (845) 858-2200,

Credit Cards, Frozen Salaries

Renbrook School in West Hartford, Conn., had long avoided credit card payments for its Renbrook Summer Adventure camp, because of the fees charged by credit card companies. But it started accepting those payments this year, “which was a huge decision,” said administrative assistant Terry Martel.

That should make payments easier for parents. The camp also tried to hold down tuition, but it still went up 2 percent over last year, to $1,295 for three weeks of day camp, $2,235 for six weeks. That’s after several years of 4 percent to 5 percent increases.

Martel declined to disclose the camp’s 2008 enrollment.

To hold down costs, the camp froze the salaries of long-time staff members. “We don’t pay our staff huge salaries. So as an incentive to get quality teaching adult staff, our adult staff members’ children come free,” Martel said.

That last item is a standing incentive, as is a discount for families that send three children to camp; they get 10 percent off the third child’s tuition.

Contact: Terry Martel, Renbrook Summer Adventure, (860) 232-8410,

Program Streamlining

The Triple-R Ranch, an ecumenical Christian day camp in Chesapeake, Va., is in a bind: It saw its numbers drop last summer by about 200, so it raised its basic fees this year to offset some of those losses. The cost now ranges from $435 to $625 for one week, depending on the timing and focus of the camp session. The camp’s capacity during one session is 192 youths; it’s offering 11 sessions this summer.

Triple-R anticipates registrations to be the same as or fewer than last year. “We’ve budgeted for it to be less,” said Program Director Jeanette Henderson. So the camp created “an early discount in January that was the largest discount we’ve ever done,” Henderson said. “It took [tuition] back to 2007 prices, so it was an $80 discount.”

This year, a new “Earn Your Way to Camp” program allots $25 toward returning campers’ tuition for each first-time camper they recruit. “Lots of people recruit four or five people,” Henderson said.

The camp has also trimmed programs. For decades, each camper picked four “skill areas” to focus on throughout the week from the dozen or so offered. This year, entire cabins will rotate together through the most popular activities – like horseback riding, canoeing and archery – while less popular and more costly activities, like photography, have been dropped.

Even the old family-style meal plan has given way to budget considerations. In the past, each meal was the same for everybody; if a camper didn’t eat it, the food was discarded. “This year, we’re doing choices for each meal” to make the meals more attractive to the campers, Henderson said. “So that’s a great quality item that we’re adding, but it actually cuts costs, because you’re not throwing away food the kids didn’t like.”

There are standing incentives as well. Triple R has always offered sibling discounts. It also offers up to $20,000 in camperships each year, usually agreeing to match the $150 deposit on camp tuition for families who request assistance. That aid is partly funded by a memorial trust, with the remainder coming from individual donors and churches. On registration forms, each family has a chance to donate money to the campership fund.

“We basically give it out as the need is, and hope the money will come in,” Henderson said.

Contact: Jeanette Henderson, Triple-R Ranch, (757) 421-4177),

Capital Campaign, Flexibility

Applications to Sanborn Western Camps, operating in Florissant, Colo., since 1948, are about 20 percent lower so far this year for the four-week, residential camps for boys (Big Spring Ranch) and girls (High Trails Ranch) ages 9 to 16. Applications to the two-week, co-ed Junior Camp, for youth ages 7 to 10, are about 15 percent off the 2008 numbers.

Michele Friedman

The camp had about a 15 percent increase in the number of campers overall from 2007 to 2008. Its enrollment goal this summer is 440 month-long campers and 160 junior campers.

“We still have a high return rate for previous campers,” said Big Spring Ranch Director Mike MacDonald. “We feel new families are harder to reach this year.”

The camp has offered financial assistance through its Sandy Sanborn Scholarship fund for the past decade, fueled exclusively by donations from alumni. Last summer, for the first time, it ran a capital campaign seeking support for both the scholarship fund and a general project fund.

“We’ve actually doubled our scholarship money from 2008 to 2009,” MacDonald said.

He said the largest percentage of campers receives an average of $1,000 each in financial aid. That’s about one quarter of the $4,100 cost of the month-long camp, and about half of the cost of the $2,050 junior camp. But he stressed that the camp is willing to work with families individually to “do what it takes” to get them to camp, including basing the scholarships on the early-bird rate, offering the early-bird discount after the usual deadline, squeezing out a few hundred extra dollars from the scholarship fund, and setting up cash payment plans through the end of September.

Also for the first time this year, the camp added as many as eight slots to the most popular sessions that filled up and were carrying waitlists.

“We have a very strong connection with our families. There’s a lot of trust involved … however many years we’ve known them, or even if they’re new,” MacDonald said. Whatever they need, “we’ll give it a try,” he said.

Contact: Mike MacDonald, Sanborn Western Camps, (719) 748-3341,

Helping Camps Cope

The nonprofit SCOPE (Summer Camp Opportunities Provide an Edge), which subsidizes camps for hundreds of children each summer in the New York City and Chicago areas, is trying to meet growing needs.

Directors of private, ACA-certified camps in the New York region founded SCOPE-NY in 1991. It later became a stand-alone organization and recently launched a SCOPE Midwest arm. It still works closely with the ACA.

Each fall, about 40 camps in the New York region apply to SCOPE for financial aid for a certain number of children. Only nonprofit residential camps are eligible.

The camps provide funds to specific children whose families request financial assistance. Children receiving the funds must attend public school and be eligible for free or reduced lunch. “It’s not just going into the pool of money a camp raises to operate. It’s restricted to the children for whom it is prescribed,” explained Michele Friedman, SCOPE’s executive director. Last year, SCOPE-NY provided $500 each to 1,600 campers. This year, it hopes to do the same. To do that, however, SCOPE has to raise money itself. “We’re doing extra events; we’re doing extra pleas,” Friedman said. “And we’re looking to focus on a lot on private foundations, which have been our biggest supporters. Interestingly enough, they’ve all increased their support this year.”

Major funders include the Brooklyn Borough President’s Office, The Heckscher Foundation for Children, The New York Mercantile Exchange Charitable Foundation and The New York Yankees Foundation.

Contacts: Sean Nienow, NCA, (212) 645-0653,; Dawn Swindle, ACA, (765) 342-8456,; Michele Friedman, (212) 391-5208,

How Many Attend Summer Camp: Estimates range from 6 million to 10 million.

The Downturn: The American Camp Association’s annual survey of member camps showed that 31 percent said that enrollment in 2008 was the highest in five summers, compared with 34 percent that said 2007 was their best year. Nine percent said that 2008 produced their lowest enrollment in five summers – compared with 7 percent that said 2007 was the worst year.

Financial Help: According to the American Camp Association, 90 percent of camps offer financial assistance of some sort. The association says that last year, its 2,400 members generated $39 million in financial aid.