Camps have been scrambling for counselors. Some have even closed.

By Ellen Barry

Joseph Charnock, like many parents, drew a sigh of relief when he dropped his 12-year-old daughter off for an eight-week session at Camp Quinebarge, on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.

It worried him a little, in the days that followed, when no sunlit pictures appeared on the camp’s Facebook page. Or when the camp’s director, in a note to parents, confessed that “the last couple of days have been a bit rough.”

But nothing prepared him for the message he got five days later, announcing that staffing shortages and delays in food delivery had made further operation impossible.

“We are asking parents to pick up their campers tomorrow,” said a note signed by the camp’s director, Eric Carlson, and other administrators.

When Charnock arrived at the camp the next morning, he said he found the campers’ possessions in a field, in a drenching rain, and his daughter waiting inside, crestfallen. He said Carlson circulated among the parents, describing with frustration the number of counselors who had walked off the job.

The meltdown at Camp Quinebarge is an extreme example of an industrywide problem as summer camps reopen after coronavirus-related closures into a historically tight labor market, without the international seasonal workers who usually do much of the work.

While most camps have found ways to navigate the smaller labor pool, some camp directors complain that young adults they have hired are “ghosting” them — failing to show up or leaving jobs without notice. And some counselors say that they are underpaid and stretched thinner than in past years, leading to chaotic operations, abandoned activities and inadequate supervision.

“You would hire two counselors, you’d get three calls a day of drops,” said Jay Jacobs, director of Timber Lake Camp, in the Catskills, who said he managed to fully staff the six camps he oversees by starting early and recruiting multiple candidates for important positions.

“They make a commitment, then they find out their friends are doing something else, or the job opportunities are ramping up,” he said. “Throw in the trauma of a year and a half of the COVID experience, and it undermines the sense of what matters. The commitment level is weaker. It’s all about me and how I’ve suffered so much in the past year and I need to take care of myself.”

Many camps have tapped into networks of former campers to fill vacant positions or offered higher wages or time off to make the positions more appealing, said Michele Rowcliffe, executive director of the American Camp Association’s New England chapter.

It is nearly unheard-of for camps to shut down midseason — the financial fallout alone could be devastating — but this month so far, the directors of three camps in the Northeast have made that decision.

Appel Farm Arts Camp, a camp in Elmer, New Jersey, notified families this week that late-summer sessions would be canceled. The camp offered refunds or alternative bookings at other camps. Staff was short in the kitchen, the facilities and among the cleaning teams, and food supply chain problems “made keeping camp open unsustainable,” Greg Orlandini, secretary of the Appel Farm board of trustees, said in a statement.

Some parents said they were supportive of the decision.

“There’s going to be angry parents, but I’m not going to be one of them,” said Nicole Warner, whose daughter Piper, 14, was planning to attend. Marybeth Boger, whose son Zamir, 11, was enrolled in a session later in the summer, said she commended the camp’s leaders for making a tough call.

“It takes a lot of courage and belief in what you do to say, ‘This year, it is not possible to provide the experience we want for your kids,’” she said.

Camp Shane, a residential weight loss camp in Kent, Connecticut, closed abruptly July 13. The camp’s director, David Ettenberg, said 10 of his 22 counselors left their jobs during the first two weeks of camp.

“More and more staff are starting to leave, and I’m getting panicky,” he said. “I literally spent days and days looking, but ultimately I hit a point where I said, ‘I can’t produce the product I should have. We really can’t find anybody.’”

He said the duties proved too much for the counselors he had hired, particularly because coronavirus restrictions prohibited them from leaving camp during their time off.

“You’re busy, busy, busy getting camp ready, and it never dawned on me that these kids needed to come out of the year and a half of what they went through,” he said of the counselors. “They had mental stress there, too. I didn’t realize it. I guess none of us did.”

The day the camp closed, Connecticut’s Office of Early Childhood and the state’s Department of Children and Families conducted an investigation of the camp because of concerns about campers’ safety and well-being, said Maggie Adair, an agency official. The investigation is pending, she said.

On its website, Camp Quinebarge offered campers teasers of what awaited them in the woods of New Hampshire: crackling campfires and cannonballs into the lake.

But by spring, the camp’s director was scrambling. Of 60 workers that had been hired by June 1, only 36 showed up, said Carlson, in written answers to questions.

In past summers, seasonal workers on J1 visas, who Carlson described as “great workers and less likely to quit,” made up between one-quarter and one-third of the staff. More than 25,000 summer workers usually travel to the United States to work as camp counselors and staff, but most have been grounded by travel restrictions.

At the same time, the camp had enrolled 20% more children than it had in 2019, he said.

In interviews, five staff members said they were hired hastily and thrust into positions of responsibility with little training.

M.J. Lowry, 21, a college student, said it was clear the camp’s director was desperate to make hires. To sweeten the deal, Camp Quinebarge paid for a plane ticket from Louisiana, agreed to allow Lowry to continue college coursework online and bring along a cat, an emotional support animal.

“I was like, OK, I’m able to fly out,” Lowry said. “I’ll do it. I’ve worked with kids before.”

Lowry arrived two days before the first group of campers, and it became clear that there would be no time for studying.

“We were treated like garbage,” Lowry said, “and also given garbage pay.”

By the middle of the first week, dissatisfaction among counselors was simmering, and senior staff members called an emergency meeting that deteriorated into angry shouting.

Max Planchon, 22, who left his job after that, said the counselors “needed to unionize” but could not find the time. He noted that, during a summer when fast food restaurants are offering $20 an hour for some positions, camp jobs may have lost their appeal.

“A lot of people can’t afford to be doing this kind of work right now,” said Planchon. “I’ve worked at Walmart and CVS in pharmacy. Those jobs are stressful and fast-paced, but they were less stressful than this job, which does not make sense.”

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