As of June 19, a Camp Rainbow Gold fundraising auction for a 15-minute Zoom call from actor Keanu Reeves had raised $75,000. In Idaho and around the country, people have been generous toward kids’ summer camps, but with the sunniest days of summer around the corner and in the midst of a global pandemic, some organizations have opted to go about business as usual, while others have innovated or made alternative arrangements.
“All this support is a game-changer for us,” wrote Camp Rainbow Gold Executive Director Elizabeth Lizberg in a June 11 press release. “We feel like the little engine that could. A small charity in Idaho getting so much love and support to continue to provide our programs to children who have battled cancer.”
Summer arts programs such as The Cabin’s writing camps and Boise Rock School’s music camps require a level of personal connection that does not lend itself to remote programming, but each organization has put together different solutions. Some of the larger camps, like Paradise Point and those organized by the Treasure Valley YMCA, are going full steam ahead, offering experiences revised under the cloud of COVID-19.
Marty Beck, Paradise Point’s executive director, said that once the choice was made to take its overnight camp online, it took three months of brainstorming and planning to create cohesive remote programming. This was a significant shift from the way Paradise Point usually operates.
The camp focuses on nurturing connections with the campers, mostly by encouraging the attendees to leave their phones at home and, if they did bring any technology, the staff would lock it away until the end of their stays at Paradise Point. Now, Paradise Point has wrapped its arms around technologies that may help recapture the camp experience.
“We are going against the grain. We wanted to find a way so it’s not just about how to fire a bow and arrow virtually, it's about how we create a connection with a place that campers are not going to be at and do that within a community that they are used to being physically with,” Beck said.
Set up on 50 acres of land, Paradise Point Camp was established by the Episcopal Church in Idaho, and the church has used that turf for camps, weddings and other events for the better part of a century. Now unable to use any of the land that it has enjoyed previously, it has gone completely online, with remote programming available to campers of all ages, though Beck said some in-person, socially distanced activities like hikes could be in the works for the future.
While the usual tradition of unplugging in the mountains is no longer a viable option, the staff members have searched for ways to engage campers. One of these include Paradise In A Box, which is a weekly package sent to attendees that contains items designed to help approximate the camp experience as much as possible.
“I attribute everything that you are seeing right now to the five staff who were kind of let go to really embrace their creativity and to know that we have a direction of creating community in a place that they can’t be in,” Beck said.
The Treasure Valley YMCA has also been determined to keep its doors open, but with an alternative method, offering no online options and almost no cancellations. YMCA facilities remained closed past May 16, which was when Stage II of Gov. Brad Little’s Idaho Rebounds economic reopening began—the stage when recreational facilities were allowed to reopen. YMCA camps opened on June 8, which is a week later than they would normally begin.
“We have educated ourselves and worked closely with the CDC. We must have been on the phone every other day asking questions like, ‘How do we plan to keep things safe?’ and we asked them to evaluate the plans that we do have in place,” said Cliff Naumann, vice president and chief operations officer for the Treasure Valley Family YMCA. “Support from the community has been very critically important to what we have done.”
Despite the fact that enrollment is down from previous years, the YMCA has seen a great deal of support from members, who Naumann said have been appreciative of the opportunities for outside engagement and childcare.
After 10 weeks of planning and collaborative efforts from local government and public health officials, several safety systems have been put in place. These procedures include required health screenings for staff and kids, limited camp sizes, and a mandatory hand-washing break every 30-minutes during the program and after transitioning between activities.
“Kids are still kids, it is critical that they get out of the house and go do things as safely as possible,” Naumann said, adding that the YMCA offers financial assistance, meaning it will never turn anyone away because they have an inability to pay.
Human connection and face-to-face interaction are the bases of art camps, many of which have said they will not operate as usual during the COVID-19 pandemic. For the past 12 summers, Boise Rock School’s camps have been a place for kids to hone their skills in a collaborative environment, and before the pandemic, operations there had normalized. This year has been radically different: The week of June 8 was the first week that the campers were able to experience face-to-face sessions. Prior to that Monday, all instruction took place via Zoom.
“It was hard at first, because the bands would practice together over Zoom, but there would be delays and lag, and things would end up sounding like a jumble of noise, but we have figured out the best practices to make it work,” Boise Rock School Co-founder Jared Goodpaster said. “We have learned a lot about remote instruction.”
Goodpaster said that the pandemic created a need for new and enhanced health and safety measures, which in turn affected every aspect of how the camps are run. Because camps are being held in person, every precaution is being taken to keep its supporters safe by still offering remote options, establishing a cap of four students per class and setting up instrument cleaning stations. Normally, the campers are able to showcase their skills in an end-of-camp performance for parents, but that has been replaced with a video recording that will be shared online.
The Cabin has found itself in a similar predicament, but ended up cancelling most of its June camps, as well as its July and August camps, instead of offering a remote option. The choice was not easy, according to The Cabin Executive Director Kurt Zwolfer: The cancellations took the organization from hosting 30-40 camps during the summer to 14.
“Our camps are centered on creativity and exploration, and we felt like that experience could not be replicated online,” said Zwolfer.
Generally, The Cabin offers different week-long camps for grades 3-12. The experience of the writing camps relies heavily on insight gained from short expeditions around the city. The teachers, who are all local professional writers, take the campers to different parts of Boise, like Freak Alley, to inspire young people to put what they see into words.
Much like Boise Rock School, The Cabin has had to cancel the campers’ final performance, where proud parents would have enjoyed the fruits of their children’s camp experience.
“It was sad for us. We want young writers to find their voice and be proud of what they have done by sharing their work, but now we can’t safely do that,” Zwolfer said. “This has been a hard time for arts groups who rely on public programming. We are hoping the community will stand behind us as we continue with the camps in July and August.”
As parents and children alike begin to feel the usual summer restlessness compounded by the effects of the shelter-in-place order, Treasure Valley camps are doing the best they can to rise to the occasion.
“We connect with the public through programming and getting together, so this has changed all of that. We still want to build a community,” Zwolfer said. “This is a chance for us to assess what we do and what our mission is.”