After COVID Cancelled Much of 2020's Plans, Camp Leaders Gear Up 2021

Mar 1, 2021

Credit Courtesy of Camp Ondessonk

Thousands of children across Illinois missed out on outdoor opportunities through summer camp last year, when COVID-19 caused the cancellation of hundreds of camps and activities in 2020.

This year, camp directors say they're determined to get kids back outside.

"Have you ever played darts blindfolded before? I feel like for us, it's a bit like that. You know, summer camp experience - although different depending on the clientèle that you're working with and the campers that you're working with - there's a lot of planning that goes into it."

Brian Croft is Assistant Director for Outdoor Education at SIU's Touch of Nature. He and other camp leaders say planning for 2021 is incredibly difficult, because guidelines are continuing to evolve and no one is exactly sure just how things are going to go.

In Illinois, there's still a big question mark about what will be allowed and what won't. Colette Marquart is Executive Director of the American Camp Association - Illinois, which provides opportunities and accreditation for camps across the state. She says her organization has been in constant motion through the pandemic.

"To look to the CDC, to look to the Illinois Department of Human Services, to look to the research studies coming out of the Air Force and other summer youth programs that ran last summer. So we haven't stopped and we've continued to provide the professional development needed, and the planning. We're really eager to have to have more of those conversations with IDPH."

Advocates for camp and outdoor activities point to studies and reports that are coming out nearly every week showing the negative effects of COVID-19 on children -- and not the virus itself or multi-system inflammatory syndrome that's shown up in young people. Doctor Chris Wangard is a pediatrician in the Metro East, who also volunteers at Camp Ondessonk in southern Illinois.

"We know that camp is good for kids' mental and emotional health. It's a good place for them to go. We also know, though, that the outcomes of this pandemic, from a mental health perspective for kids, have been an absolute disaster."

There has been a spike in reports of depression and anxiety among children and adults, as well as higher levels of suicidal thoughts and feelings among an ever-younger population. Wangard and others say camp could help kids begin to repair some of the damage. Camp Ondessonk's Director, Dan King, agrees.

"Kids are hurting now, and they are hopeful for experiences like we give at camp. It's a part of a growth that is difficult to achieve in other settings."

"You know, we had a girl - her mother called me last May, and said, 'Being remote learning is killing Sophie. She's not herself, I don't know what to do - and the only thing she talks about positively and fondly is The Farm."

Ed Amstutz runs The Country Experience at Amstutz Family Farm Camp in Elizabeth, Illinois. He says children of varying abilities and needs across the state can't afford to miss another year of camp.

"We all have different properties, we all have different board structures, we all have different groups that we serve. But at the end, there are 420,000 young folks in Illinois that go to camp every year. And we want to be able to help them."

To that end, Dr. Wangard says studies show camp can be a safe activity amid COVID-19. He says other states were able to operate both day and overnight camps last year with the proper procedures and guidelines, and he hopes that can be implemented for Illinois, too.

"We're just talking about our lowest-risk population, and we're really at a point where the data really back up that this is a safe option - or at least the safest we can make it under the circumstances."

In northeast Illinois, Peggy Brothers is Assistant Vice President for Outdoor Programs and Properties for Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana. She says communication has been key for her campers and their families. She and her staff have led Zoom meetings to answer questions about how things will go this year.

"We're trying to be as transparent as possible, saying 'The girls are going to have a great experience. Here are the things that we absolutely are going to do, here are the things that you as a parent need to be comfortable with - because it is going to look differently,' and let those parents make that decision, then."

Good luck trying to buy a bike right now. Good luck trying to go to any store and buy a kayak right now. People are realizing that the outdoors is a special place. ~Brian Croft

Camp directors say they're already well into plans for this summer, and they're continuing to make changes as the guidelines evolve and new information is collected. Many camps in Illinois serve vulnerable populations, too - which adds another layer of complexity. Allen McBride with Easter Seals Timber Pointe near Bloomington/Normal says they have to move forward.

"Knowing how many changes happened last year between March and May, June, July, I didn't want through that, as a director with a small staff. So I made the decision earlier on to say, 'Alright, we know we can do this. We did this last summer with day camps and family retreats. So by X date, that's what we're going to go with."

And warmer temperatures will have more and more people looking for opportunities to get outside - Touch of Nature's Brian Croft says that's a good thing as everyone tries to find their center in a chaotic time.

"Good luck trying to buy a bike right now. Good luck trying to go to any store and buy a kayak right now. People are realizing that the outdoors is a special place. It's a place that's powerful, that's magical - and I learned that from my camp experience."

State leaders say guidelines for re-opening activities continue to change. And as many camps gear up for a summer season, leaders say they're hopeful for as much flexibility as possible, to get kids back outside - and in some cases, back to normal.