The joys and burdens of summer: Finding the right (affordable) summer camp

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By Sunday, May 14 Life In the Berkshires

The long summer vacation is coming, and with it the annual family scramble to figure out how to fill the empty weeks — without breaking the bank — when kids are free and parents are obliged to work.

This year there will be, for families with children enrolled in public schools, a summer with eight weeks off, with school starting again just after Labor Day. Summer often runs longer, to ten weeks, but there were several snow days to make up this year. Private schools — Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School, Montessori School of the Berkshires, Berkshire Country Day School — let out earlier in June, and each has its own summer programs. Summer camps and educational programs generally start the last week of June, and run through the middle of August.

Eden Hill Sports Camp will be held at Berkshire Country Day School in Lenox.

Eden Hill Sports Camp will be held at Berkshire Country Day School in Stockbridge.

The one-week tuition cost for summer camp ranges widely. For local day camps, the cost can be under $200 per week to as high as $500, and sleepover camps average about $1,000 per week. Eden Hill Sports Camp at Berkshire Country Day School is among the most affordable, costing, if a family opts to sign up for all seven weeks of day camp, $171 per week. For a single child family that needs coverage for that child for, let’s say, eight weeks, camp there would cost $1,368. At a $500 per week for camps such as Camp Half Moon or Kutsher’s Sports Academy, the cost would be $4,000. For a family with three children, those numbers go from a low of $4,000 total to a high of $12,000. And that is for day camp. Sleep-away camp for three kids for eight weeks would run to $24,000. Summer is expensive.

For working parents, putting together the financial and logistical puzzle of how to occupy children once school lets out often begins in mid-winter, or before.

At the Flying Cloud Institute students create a play -- with giant puppet figures they build.

At the Flying Cloud Institute students create a play — with giant puppet figures they build.

“I make sure to get my application in before February,” says Erica Mielke, single mother of a 7-year-old boy, and full-time bookkeeper. The application she’s referring to is for one of South Berkshire county’s camp pillars, YMCA Camp Hi Rock, which last year served 841 kids (drawing kids from Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York, mostly), offers one of the longer days (as long as 7:30-4:30, including bus), transportation to and from the camp in Mount Washington, and generous financial aid. Erica is making it through with Hi Rock and vacations organized for each week on either end of the summer.

Melissa Andrus sends her son to the Flying Cloud Institute in New Marlborough for their arts and science-based programming, and is sure to apply early. But he will only be attending the first, three-week session, as the later, two-week camp session filled up too early. “I can’t imagine how parents with multiple kids do it!” she said.

Kim Hamberg Wilder, married mother of two boys and a sales associate at Barnbrook Realty, is also a big fan of Camp Hi Rock — “the kids come home filthy dirty and falling asleep at the dinner table, and that is what summer camp should be”— and she also plans vacations for the start and end of summer to fill in the no-camp-week gaps. For the rest, she is grateful for the only free option in town.

Campers at Eisner Camp's swimming complex in Great Barrington. Photo: David Scribner

Campers at Eisner Camp’s swimming complex in Great Barrington. Photo: David Scribner

“I thank God every day for Project Connection,” she says, speaking of the federally-funded before and afterschool program for elementary and middle school students at Berkshire Hills Regional School District, which also offers five weeks of no-cost camp, transportation included. Their summer program includes academic tutoring, partnerships with area arts and nature nonprofits, and field trips. “My older son has Aspergers,” Kim said, “and the younger one has ADHD. He’s a bouncing ball of energy, and doesn’t learn as much as he should because he’s not sitting still in class, so both my boys need it, and it’s great. Also, you don’t get that regression part of going back in September.” But the big catch there is that children are pre-selected for Project Connection’s summer component, so, as Robin Curletti, owner of Fuel Coffee Shop and mother of three, said, “you have to hit the lottery if you get that invite.”

Berkshire South Community Center’s Action Adventures camp, and local volunteer-run sports league camps, often held at the schools in Great Barrington or Lenox, also get high praise from parents in the affordability regard.

Among its summer offerings Berkshire Country Day School has introduced three July sessions dubbed DROBOTS, a “drone” day camp, based upon STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) principles, during which participants learn the techniques and potential of drones.

Berkshire South Community Center’s Action Adventures camp offers a variety of programs.

Berkshire South Community Center’s Action Adventures camp offers a variety of programs.

In general, local nonprofit camps try not to turn applicants away based on need, and have developed some innovative ideas. IS183 Art School of the Berkshires does work exchanges with families, and they’ve also developed a partnership with Pittsfield-based Blue Q, whereby the company offers employees the benefit of a campership to IS 183 as part of their payment package. Flying Cloud has worked out barters with parents. With referrals through schools and camps, the local Crocus Fund partners with Flying Cloud, Flying Deer Nature Center, Camp Hi Rock and others on camperships for about a dozen kids per summer. (Full disclosure: I run the Crocus Fund.)

What about those intrepid families with three kids? Jeremy Higa, formerly of Martin’s Restaurant and lately the Berkshire Co-op Market, has three sons, and both he and his wife work full-time. The family will take camping vacations, and soccer camp has been their go-to activity, along with Lego camp at the Lenox Community Center.

But for the Higa’s, as well as for several other parents I spoke with, the real saving grace has been grandma, who lives nearby and can spend whole weeks with the boys. Kim depends on her mom for assistance with drop off, pick up, and bringing kids in for early afternoon orthodontist appointments. “I am taking full advantage of her these days,” she admits.

Of the summer shuffle, Robin says, “It is brutal. I don’t understand how people can do it without grannies.” Robin is fortunate enough to have both grannies local, and available. Her two girls and one boy have been Hi Rock campers for years, and last year took advantage of sleepover camp for the first time, which the kids opted to continue on for a second week after enjoying the first.

The puzzle gets folks through the summer, but the pieces often don’t fit well. The process is bumpy, messy, expensive, stressful.

“Oh, it’s terrible,” said Ilana Siegal, owner of LifeWorks Studio in Great Barrington, and mother of three boys ages seven and under. “It doesn’t work at all. My two older boys do Camp Eisner, paid for by their grandparents, but that only covers some of the weeks, and limited hours, so I guess I’ll have to hire a full-time babysitter for the others.” Robin asks herself each year, “Can I afford to send the kids to camp, or NOT to send them?”

maria rundle

Maria Rundle, director of Flying Cloud Institute

Maria Rundle is the new director of Flying Cloud, and she started out there as a parent, also of three kids. “I had a child who needed more, and I was grateful to find Flying Cloud. It gave her what she needed. It’s the big game changer, finding something for them to do, but, then, it’s, can you afford, how are we get them there, and pick them up? We provide multiple pick up points, but we are down to one bus company now, Massini. The bus is so crucial, especially if there is no grandparent to help drive. The more help you need, the harder it is to get.”

But parents might take heart in looking forward to the day their children become teenagers. The Higa’s oldest son, now sixteen, has worked at the Red Lion Inn since for the past couple years. Sarah Culmer and her husband Paul are English, and do not have family living locally. Sarah’s daughter, nearly thirteen, will be going back to her elementary school teacher’s summer camp to serve as a helper. Robin is entering a “whole new world” with her older son. She’s hoping he will get an unpaid internship at a parkour and gymnastics camp, and working at Fuel bussing tables.

A camper experiencing the rope course at Camp Eisner. Photo: David Scribner

A camper experiencing the rope course at Camp Eisner. Photo: David Scribner

As for the parents of very young children, that is where options become very narrow indeed. Kate Van Olst is the mom of a toddler, and works four, six-hour days as an administrator at Stanton Home. Her time there is limited to the hours her son is in school. As for summer, she has, as she says, “looked high and low, and found nothing.” At the two day-care facilities for children under two years, nine months, at Undermountain School and Berkshire School, there are multi-year long wait lists. (Kate has been on Berkshire’s list for a year.)

Though there is a “smattering” of home day cares, in general, where child care is concerned, there is a “huge vacuum,” says Kate. “Everywhere I go I hear about our aging, dwindling population in South Berkshire county, yet everywhere I look I see moms with young kids.” Kate’s solution has been to convince her parents to move up here from Long Island for a year to help out.

For working families, summer camp management is only one piece of a much larger puzzle. As Ilana Siegal put it, summer is, “just the tippiest tip of the child care problem iceberg.”

Camp Resources (a partial list):

Action Adventures Day Camp at Berkshire South Regional Community Center:

$225 for members/ $295 for non-members. Financial Aid available.

Berkshire Country Day School:

DROBOTS Day Camp: 3 sessions, July 10 – 28.

Flying Cloud Institute:

$1,180 for three week session/ $850 for two week session. Financial aid available.

YMCA Camp Hi Rock:

$350/ week day camp, $618 for two-week session, with transportation included. Financial Aid available.

Eden Hill Sports Camp:

$171 / if you sign up for all seven weeks, otherwise $315 / week.

IS183 Art School of the Berkshires

$325 / week.

Camp Half Moon

$500 / week

Audubon Society’s Pleasant Valley:

$425/ week

Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School:

$300/ week

Eisner Camp (day program):

$400 per week for day camp (ages 3-8)

Montessori School of the Berkshires:

$250/ week

Flying Deer Nature Center, New Lebanon, New York:

$325/ week

The Crocus Fund only takes referrals from school and camp personnel. To make a donation to the Crocus Fund, and so help to make summer camp more accessible, please send a check to: Crocus Fund, 2 Water St., Housatonic, MA 01236

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