These YMCA camps served children for 100 years. Now they are shut.
By Daniel E. Slotnik
Juan Escobar was 12 and skinny when he first went to a YMCA summer camp. He weighed only 65 pounds, often did not get enough to eat and had chronic asthma.
For much of his childhood, he lived with his mother and grandmother in a public-housing complex in the South Bronx, where, he said, he was in constant fear of robbers and bullies.
But at the camp, in upstate New York, “I didn’t have to worry about dodging bullets,’’ Escobar, 29, said. Instead, he was surrounded by trees.
Wholesome food and fresh air improved his health, he said, and the welcoming environment helped him gain confidence and relate to people from different backgrounds. The YMCA gave him financial aid so he could afford to attend the camp, which he did throughout his teenage years before becoming a counselor. He is now a police officer in the Bronx.
Since 1918, the three summer camps run by the YMCA of Greater New York have offered a change of scenery for generations of children, many of them Black and Latino and from families that could not otherwise afford to provide them a summer in the country.
That was before the pandemic, which forced the camps to shut down last year and decimated the YMCA’s finances. Now, the organization is closing the camps for good and has put the grounds up for sale.
The move came as a surprise to members of the camps’ Board of Managers, an advisory group that works with the YMCA Board members said they had not been consulted about the planned sale.
“Our hope and expectation was that as an active and dedicated group of volunteers that we would have garnered some respect,” said Emily Van Ingen, 51, deputy director of a nonprofit group in the East New York section of Brooklyn, and a member of the board.
YMCA officials declined to comment on board members’ complaints about not being notified of the decision to sell the camps.
A sale would allow the YMCA to cut costs while bringing in money that is desperately needed after a dismal year that left many of its most lucrative services, including gyms, either closed or severely limited because of the virus, said Ronnie Tucker, a YMCA spokeswoman.
The organization has laid off nearly 2,000 employees, or more than half its workforce, and faced a $100 million budget shortfall last year, Tucker said.
Closing the camps, Tucker said, had been “a very painful and very, very difficult decision for our organization.”
Escobar said he had hoped to send his son, who is 6 months old, to a YMCA camp one day.
“I’m so sad and angry that this is happening,” he said “This is my home.”
The three camps cover more than 1,000 wooded acres in Huguenot, New York, about 60 miles northwest of New York City. In 2019, the last summer they were open, 60% of the campers were from the city and over 70% were children of color.
In a typical summer, about 1,200 children from 7 to 16 have attended the camps, with roughly a third receiving some financial assistance, YMCA officials said.
“I view this as a civil rights issue,” John Block, 69, a documentary filmmaker who was a counselor and a former member of the Board of Managers, said in an email. “The camp closing is yet another example of the poor minority community taking an especially hard hit.”
Sleepaway camps across the United States experienced financial losses last year after government regulations prompted by the pandemic mostly kept them closed. Rules vary by state this year, but many camps will be allowed to reopen with social distancing guidelines in place. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has indicated that camps in the state will be able to open this year, but he has not provided clear guidelines for how they will do so yet.
“It’s a fragile situation,” said Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association, an industry group. “Camps are doing everything they can.”
The YMCA of Greater New York said it hoped to sell the upstate camps for around $5 million. It declined to disclose other details about a potential sale or to comment on whether it would sell only to a buyer who pledged to keep the properties as summer camps.
To campers, their families and a vast network of alumni, the camps’ looming shutdown came as an unexpected blow.
“The idea of selling this camp that’s been with us for 102 years, at a time when New York City children absolutely need it the most, is disappointing beyond words,” said Monica Bermiss, 48, an assistant middle school principal, former camper and a Board of Managers member.
After learning that the camps were for sale, some former campers and counselors have been trying to raise enough money to buy the properties, while acknowledging that it was unlikely they would succeed.
Tucker, the YMCA spokeswoman, said it had become too costly to maintain the camps and their grounds, which include three lakes, horse stables, ropes courses, a wood shop and an inflatable floating obstacle course.
As for the organization’s 22 branches in the city, member services, like pools, had only reopened in the 10 that serve the largest number of members, Tucker said. Membership at those 10 branches has plunged about 40% since the pandemic started.
YMCAs across the country are facing similar hardship, said Paul McEntire, YMCA of the USA’s chief operations officer.
“Last spring, all Ys had to close down for some period of time, which meant billions of dollars of lost membership and programmatic revenue,’’ he said in an email, adding, “Some have had to make the very difficult decision to close or sell branches or camps.”