Making Camps More Affordable
More than 11 million children will enjoy some kind of camp experience this summer. At diverse day and overnight camps where tuition can range from under $75 to more than $650 per week, every child will participate in outdoor activities, share in camp traditions, make new friends and learn new skills. Many will remember these camp experiences for the rest of their lives.
For some families, particularly those with parents who went camp themselves as kids, a summer camp experience is an essential part of a child’s year-round education. These parents know what research has shown: Camp promotes personal growth in a safe environment, developmentally-appropriate activities, learning experiences, discovery through experiential education and leadership opportunities.
In other families, camp is a child care alternative that allows parents to work while knowing that their children are safe and supervised by caring, competent and trained camp staff.
Despite the many benefits, however, some families still believe that the camp experience is financially out of reach. The good news for parents, according to Peg L. Smith, CEO of the nonprofit American Camp Association (ACA), is that there is a camp for just about every budget. Assistance options are available to make camp affordable for every child.
Smith says that when parents are choosing a camp, they need to ask the right questions. Does the camp offer partial or total “camperships?” What is included in the tuition? What is the refund policy? Are there discounts for early registration, full-season enrollment or multiple family members? Is the camp ACA-accredited?
Need-based assistance takes many forms and generally requires a family to apply for aid in addition to the camp’s basic registration form. Factors like income, expenses and temporary circumstances may be considered when a family applies for financial assistance at a camp like YMCA Camp Shand in Cornwall, Pennsylvania, which serves boys and girls from Lancaster and the wider region.
Christine Smith (no relation to Peg Smith), the director of YMCA Camp Shand, says that a simple two-page application form makes it easy for families to receive a full or partial fee reduction through the Lancaster YMCA’s “Campaign for Youth” scholarship fund. The Campaign is supported by community members whose donations allow children to attend Camp Shand’s day or overnight camp programs or other youth programs offered by the Lancaster YMCA. Smith says that in 2007, YMCA Camp Shand provided $32,000 in financial assistance, and she hopes to offer even more fee relief in 2008.
Part of the YMCA’s mission is to make sure that every child who wants to attend camp can attend, regardless of financial circumstances.
“Our fees are already lower than most private camps because YMCA Camp Shand is supported by the Lancaster YMCA,” says Christine Smith, “and our affordable fee structure enables many children from different backgrounds to attend, from children whose families can easily afford the tuition to families who need help.”
Tuition at Camp Shand runs from $150 to $185 per week for day camp and $350 per week for overnight camp. Teens age 14-17 can attend Service Camp for only $100 per week. Smith says the Service Camp is designed to help teens develop enthusiasm for participating in the community by working at a local food bank or building homes through Habitat for Humanity.
Girl Scouts in the Heart of Pennsylvania also offer financial assistance in the form of full or partial camperships. Families complete a two-page application form to request aid at any of the 12 Girl Scout day camps or five overnight camps serving the Central Pennsylvania region. At camps like Echo Trail, girls in grades 1 through 12 can choose from a tremendous variety of one-week programs, from “Monkey Business” and “Camp Courage” to a camp for older girls called “To the X-Treme.” Fees for day camp start at $115 per week while overnight camp starts at $300 weekly. Programs like horseback riding and scuba may have additional fees.
Stephanie Titzel, chief communications and marketing officer for the Girl Scouts in the Heart of Pennsylvania, says that in 2007 the Girl Scout Council distributed $132,000 in camp financial aid. For 2008, they hope to offer $250,000.
A variety of discounts can also help make camp affordable. Camp Kirchenwald, a Lutheran Church camp in Lebanon County, offers “additional child discounts” of $25 for the second child and $50 for the third child in a family when all the children attend full-week sessions. In addition to the sibling discount, families can save $25 when they bring a friend who is new to the camp. Plus, the friend saves $25, too. Families also can save $15 when they pay in full by April 15. In 2007, these discounts combined saved 725 campers a total of $14, 265.
Mike Youse, executive director of the Lutheran Camping Corporation of Central PA, which operates Camp Kirchenwald, says that he does an in-depth analysis of camp operational costs and then sets fees accordingly to help keep tuition affordable. Even then, camp can still be out of reach for some families, so Kirchenwald also has systems in place to help families in need.
“Since Kirchenwald is a Lutheran Church camp, many of our families come from Lutheran churches whose congregations provide financial support for camp,” says Youse. “We also have a ‘campership’ program funded by generous donors and the proceeds of an annual golf outing. Last summer, 26 campers received full or partial camperships that in aggregate saved families $6,265.”
Camp Kirchenwald offers a wide variety of traditional and specialty day and overnight camp programs at a basic cost of $365 per week for overnight camp and $115 per week for day camp. Other camp programs, including a mini-camp and 10-day camp are available. Certain specialty camps may have additional fees.
Since camp programs — particularly day camps — are a type of child care, many camps offer aid in the form of income subsidies from federal, state or municipal administrative agencies. Income subsidies are paid directly to the approved camp program to cover part or all of a family’s tuition, after the family has met eligibility requirements through a Child Care Information Service (CCIS) agency. Eligibility for income subsidies may vary by program, and all camps welcome inquiries from parents who think that they may qualify.
Families may also find camp more affordable by taking advantage of federal income tax benefits like the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (IRS Publication 503) or Dependent Care Flexible Spending Accounts, available for children under age 13 in day camp programs. You may receive tax credits for up to 35 percent of your child care expenses if you work or look for work while your child is in day camp. Flexible Spending Accounts will allow for camp payments made only while you are enrolled in the program. Check with your tax advisor or employer and be sure you understand how to use these benefits correctly. Rules may vary depending on your income and circumstances.
Whether you choose a day or overnight camp, a traditional or specialty camp, the camp experience is priceless — and affordable. Ask the right questions and your child can join the millions of children who will share in camp, the experience of a lifetime, in summer 2008.
Ellen Warren writes for the American Camp Association Keystone Section, which serves camps and camp families in Pennsylvania and Delaware.