Summer camps do not find staff. This means less childcare for Maine parents

The sun is barely above the treeline as Chris Shea greets about 80 children at a summer camp hosted by the YMCA of Auburn-Lewiston in Maine one weekday morning, his voice bellowing through the trees.

Each day campers are spread out over 93 acres of woods and fields, with plenty of room for all the classic summer camp activities, from archery to swimming.

Shea says it’s a valuable experience for many kids — a way to get them outside and socializing with new friends, which is especially important after years of distance and hybrid schooling.

But even though he’s looking at dozens of smiling faces, Shea says camp this summer can feel empty at times.

“That’s almost half the numbers you want to see in front of you, when you’re making announcements. So it’s a little disheartening and disappointing,” he says. “But I guess that’s what it is, and you’re doing the best you can with what you’ve got.”

The YMCA of Auburn-Lewiston was expecting about 120 children this summer. But Shea says the organization ended up limiting capacity to about 80 campers.

That’s because summer camps across the state are facing a shortage of counselors as a tight job market drives many young people into other jobs, reducing the few childcare services available. children for parents across the state.

“Childcare and camp is not an easy job, is it? You look after the kids all day and all their needs,” says Meagan Hamblett, executive director of the YMCA Alliance of Northern New England.

Hamblett says many young people are opting for other jobs that may pay $15 or $20 an hour elsewhere.

“If you can go out there and you can get a job at Hannaford, or a local landscaper, and get paid the same amount of money, we see people going and doing those things, rather than coming to traditional daycare and at summer camp,” she said.

The camps say they also rely on teachers to serve as counselors during their free time in the summer. But this year, fewer people are signing up, exhausted from years of blended and distance learning.

Add it up, and worker shortages have forced several day camps — from YMCAs to nonprofits and local recreation departments — to reduce capacity or cancel programs altogether, in some cases resulting in long lists of ‘waiting. Hamblett says it’s a concern at a time when it’s already hard to find affordable childcare in many parts of the state.

“Back when one parent was working and the other parent was home, summer camp was kind of a luxury, right? You sent your child for a few weeks, or a specialty camp here or there,” she said. “Most families in our YMCA camp programs send their kids all summer. Because it’s their child care.”

The situation has left parents scrambling to find alternatives. In Ellsworth, Maine, Rita Boutaugh found herself caught off guard earlier this year when her daughter’s day camp was canceled because he couldn’t find enough counsellors.

“It was a sickening feeling to know that my child was not going to have daycare for the next few months, for the summer,” she says.

Boutaugh tried to hold up a sign outside the local grocery store announcing open camp counselor positions. But that did not work.

She managed to find a few other camps for her daughter to attend for a few weeks, and her parents often helped her as well. But several days, Boutaugh works night shifts at Shaw’s local grocery store so she can care for her daughter.

“Like tonight, I’m going to have to come in and work the nights,” she said. “But tomorrow we’ll spend the day together. So we just compromise and just try to make the most of it.”

The summer camps didn’t find easy solutions either. Many said they had significantly increased their salaries, but this did not lead to many more applications.

Ron Hall, executive director of the nonprofit summer camps in Maine, says the overnight camps have been able to make up for the shortage by bringing in foreign workers on J-1 visas to fill positions. But he said few day camps have pursued this strategy.

At the YMCA day camp in Auburn, Shea says he had just spoken with a grandmother who was hoping her grandchildren would attend camp. But he says he had to turn her down, which is difficult when there are so few other childcare options.

“So it’s a little frustrating. The grandmother I spoke to this morning understood,” Shea says. “The kids we have here, they love it. They’re having a great time at camp. I just wish more could enjoy it.”

With the job market still tight, some camps say they plan to start recruiting next summer’s counselors much earlier, hoping the extra time will help them find enough staff by the start. camp next year.

This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally released by Maine Public Radio.

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