Counselor Aidan Alastro pushes campers Miriam Means, left, and Helen Hatch on swings at Camp Ketcha in Scarborough. Some summer camp programs have been canceled due to a lack of staffing. Camp Ketcha started its first week of camp this week, but Camp Director Kara LaRochelle says they could use a few more camp counselors. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

When Camp Ketcha opened summer camp registration on Jan. 18, every spot was taken in just five minutes. Hundreds of parents put their children on waitlists, hoping to find a way to get in.

That was a first for the Scarborough nonprofit, which has been around since 1964, says Kara LaRochelle, the camp’s director, but it’s understandable given the high demand for childcare in Southern Maine and the pandemic-enhanced desire to get outside.

Kara LaRochelle, right, camp director at Camp Ketcha in Scarborough, watches campers with counselor Theresa Tillman on Wednesday. The camp was staffed well enough to start last week but LaRochelle says they could use a few more counselors. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

This year, 300 kids will attend each week, taking part in traditional summer camp activities under the watchful eyes of 70 counselors.

Getting ready has not been easy.

Across Maine and the nation, summer camps like Camp Ketcha have had to scramble to hire enough counselors to staff their programs and make room for as many campers as possible. Directors of day and overnight camps say hiring seasonal employees is harder than ever in a job market so competitive that nearly every type of employer is struggling to attract workers.

An estimated 63,000 children go to summer camp in Maine each summer. Maine camps typically hire 13,000 summer staff, including more than 3,000 people who come to the United States on J1 visas to work, said Ron Hall, executive director of Maine Summer Camps, which represents 145 Maine camps.

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Maine summer camps contribute nearly $500 million – directly and indirectly – to the state’s economy each year, Hall said. Even in 2020, when only a small number of camps were able to open, with limited capacity, they still contributed $190 million to the economy, he said.

Last summer, most camps opened, Hall said, but many significantly reduced enrollment to follow coronavirus safety protocols. And only 400 workers came to Maine camps on J1 visas, though more are expected this year. Despite the struggle to hire counselors, camps still found a way to make it work with fewer of them, he said.

“There’s no reason to believe they won’t do that again this year,” said Hall, who noted that some senior staff members may have to be more hands-on with day-to-day activities.

INCREASING SALARIES

Hall has been hearing from camps scrambling for staff that they’re increasing salaries by up to 20 percent.

“That’s obviously a financial hardship on the camps, but it’s something they feel they need to do,” he said.

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In Portland, pay for counselors at day camps run by the city’s recreation department was increased to $15 to $17 an hour depending on experience. Department staff got to work earlier than usual to hire 17 seasonal camp counselors, more than they’ve hired before. Recreation Director Nick Cliche said they “pounded the pavement” with social media posts and outreach to students at the University of Southern Maine.

“We know the market is difficult and we’re facing competition with other camps,” he said.

Cliche said the department prioritized hiring enough staff to run three camps for a total of 275 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, an age at which childcare and access to fun, safe activities is critical.

“Many working families are relying on it,” he said. “It’s super important that kids have a place to go for the day, five days a week, while their parents are working.”

Sports camp counselor Kailey Fossile watches as two campers play soccer at Camp Ketcha in Scarborough on Thursday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Back in January, Katie Stansky of Brunswick set to work finding a “hodgepodge” of options for summer childcare for her 3-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. She was able to secure spots at two different camps, confirmed her registrations and paid in advance.

Last week, she got a note from the farm camp her daughter was signed up to go to for four weeks saying her spot had been cut because of staff shortages. Stansky said she was told 88 families had been dropped from the camp, which is still operating in some capacity. She wouldn’t name the camp, but said it is run by a Midcoast nonprofit.

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THE STRUGGLE TO FIND SPOTS

That news was the first blow, Stansky said. Then it sank in that her son’s camp wasn’t going to be an option because of the young, inexperienced staff.

Now she and her husband, who both work full-time from home, are scrambling to find other options. All of the summer camps in the area are full. They’re considering hiring a nanny if they can find one, sending the kids to a neighbor’s in-home daycare or a combination of the two.

“We had a plan, but now that plan is not there,” Stansky said. “We’ll figure it out, but it’s demoralizing when you have to plan so far ahead. We can’t work if they’re not in care.”

Stansky has talked to other parents about how competitive it is to get into day camps, but she hasn’t heard of many who are quite in her current fix. The struggle to find childcare is extremely stressful for parents, she said.

“I think for a lot of us, it harkens back to the early COVID days. It’s like here we go again,” Stansky said. “Any time any piece of the puzzle is taken out, it all falls apart.”

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At Camp Ketcha, LaRochelle has gotten used to receiving calls from parents like Stansky who are desperate to find spots for their children. More than ever, those calls come from parents whose child care arrangements for the summer changed abruptly.

“A lot of families call us and say ‘Oh my gosh, our day care closed yesterday without notice and we need a place for our kid,'” LaRochelle said. “It’s hard because this year we can’t take them, when last year we may have been able to squeeze them in.”

It’s a similar story in South Portland, where the recreation department registered 400 campers in a few days and families hoping to get in are on a waitlist. The city’s four rec camps are nearly up to the pre-pandemic enrollment of 450 to 500 campers, but the cap had to be lowered a bit because of staffing, said Anthony Johnson, deputy director of parks and recreation.

Hiring is always a bit of a challenge because of the camps’ large size, but this year was especially difficult, he said. The department hired about 50 people, including some junior counselors who are younger than usual. It has what it needs, but a few more hires would help.

“It will be bare bones, but we’ll be able to do it,” he said.

‘A HARDER SELL’

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Chris Thurston has no idea what he made when he was a teen camp counselor because it just wasn’t important to him, he said. He and his fellow counselors were there for the experience, fun and instant gratification of watching younger kids become more confident and find their passions.

In the past decade, Thurston, the director of Jewish Community Alliance’s non-denominational Center Day Camp in North Windham, has seen a shift that has made hiring teenagers harder. Many now seem more focused on pay and on wanting to make a certain amount of money over the summer, which Thurston understands.

“It’s a harder sell for kids. It’s more difficult now than it was five or 10 years ago in terms of what kids are looking for out of a summer job,” he said.

The Center Day Camp closed down in 2020 and ran at half-capacity last summer. This year, it will offer three sessions, each three weeks long. There will be 150 campers per session and 45 staff members on hand.

Some counselors are returning, Thurston said, but he had to make a big push to hire enough people to offer all of the traditional daily activities, which include swimming, sailing, archery and drama. He went all over New England in search of new counselors, at camp fairs and job fairs held at high schools and colleges. He sometimes met with prospective counselors multiple times, and in some cases sat down with parents of teenagers interested in working at the camp.

“Getting face-to-face and really being able to sell these kids on the job as a rewarding and fun experience is really helpful,” he said. “I’ve never met someone who, after a year of working a summer camp, is like ‘Man, I shouldn’t have done that.’ It’s a really unique experience.”

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The YMCA of Southern Maine, which provides financial assistance on a sliding scale, had to limit enrollment at its summer camps until it could confirm staff would be available to care for children. Registration has opened so far at only a couple of its camps:  Otter Pond in Standish and Camp Osprey in Freeport.

ROLLING REGISTRATION

“Like many places, the YMCA has been impacted by staffing challenges,” reads the message on the YMCA website. “Because of this, we are opening registration for individual camps on a rolling basis, as we are able to confirm staffing.”

YMCA officials did not respond to requests to talk about the staffing issues they are having.

At Agassiz Village Summer Camp in Poland, Camp Director Jaime O’Connor has had a few frantic moments as she tries to hire the last of the 70 staff members needed to run the camp on Thompson Lake. Just when she thinks she has all of her counselors in place, one of them drops out. She’s had more job candidates “ghost” her during the hiring process than ever before in her 30-year camp career.

“It’s been two steps forward, three steps back,” she said.

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O’Connor is relieved to have 25 counselors coming to Maine on J1 visas from countries including Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand, Poland and Germany. She was shocked that a number of prospective counselors were denied visas, something she hadn’t seen before.

Despite those challenges, O’Connor said, everyone at Agassiz Village is looking forward to welcoming the largest number of campers in years for a summer that will feel a little closer to normal than last year.

The camp was started in July 1935 by Harry Burroughs, who wanted to give newsies and shoeshine boys in Boston a chance to go to summer camp in Maine. Today, it hosts 450 campers, ages 8 to 17, from underserved communities. They come from Maine, Massachusetts and New York City.

When the campers arrive, they’ll go swimming, learn archery, make friends and, if all goes well, be unaware of the scramble required to get everyone in place to welcome them.

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