As the weather warms up, local summer camps and organizations are preparing for the return of kids, albeit with reduced numbers due to COVID-19.
Camp Onyahsa is ready to return to some level of normalcy this summer. Last year, the camp was forced to cancel its overnight activities, which Director Jon O’Brian believes was the right call by Gov. Andrew Cuomo given the aggregate lifestyle that summer camp espouses.
Instead, Camp Onyahsa held an expanded day camp that consisted of three different day camps with three “pods” of up to five kids for a total of 45 kids at camp at one time. To limit a possible COVID outbreak, each pod interacted with members of their pod only. Strict protocols were in place that mandated kids to wear masks at all times except for eating, which was done outside, and swimming.
Along with the campers, staff were also instructed to follow COVID guidelines. Staff were required to stay on site at all times as visiting home could expose them to the virus, and they were given their own on-site cabin to limit interaction with others. O’Brian credits last year’s healthy and safe summer to the implementation of these protocols.
This year, Camp Onyahsa will again be offering its expanded day camps with the same “pod” system and protocols that were in place last year. Although virtually no children are going to be vaccinated by the start of the summer, O’Brian is heavily encouraging all staff to receive the vaccination.
The big change this year is that overnight camps will be reintroduced with 50% capacity. The YMCA is a national organization with over 200 summer camps across the country and is also accredited by the American Camp Association. By utilizing information from these two sources, Camp Onyahsa officials feel they have the knowledge needed to safely return to normality with overnight programs.
O’Brian believes summer camp and in-person education are essential to the development of the youth. Since Camp Onyahsa is a place where kids are educated in health, safety, and happiness, O’Brian considers it an essential operation given the year of remote learning and social-distancing that COVID has induced.
With this being the 123rd year of its operation, O’Brian aims to continue to fulfill the mission of Camp Onyahsa to educate kids in “mind, spirit, and body.” By offering outdoor physical activities and a diverse camper population for kids to interact with, Camp Onyahsa is a place where kids can connect with nature, learn about themselves and learn long-lasting life lessons from each other.
Along with Camp Onyahsa, the Jamestown YMCA also offers summer day camp options at its locations in Jamestown and Lakewood, and was forced to alter its summer plans last year due to COVID.
The traditional day camps in Jamestown and Lakewood, which offer fun and educational activities throughout the summer, were not offered. Instead, childcare programs were located at the YMCA in Jamestown and Lakewood as well as Ring Elementary School. The YMCA supports summer learning, so a remote learning program with local teachers was also in place.
According to John Barber, operations director at the Jamestown YMCA, the usual summer day camps are anticipated to be offered this year in Jamestown and Lakewood. Although the weekly field trips that the camps usually offer are canceled this year as a result of COVID, the YMCA is happy to provide their traditional day camps once again. The summer day camps will look to decrease their group sizes in activities to combat COVID contraction.
The YMCA will be partnering with Jamestown Public Schools to offer the Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress (LEAP) program to combat the learning loss associated with summer vacation. Barber said that this year specifically students will be more susceptible to the summer slide as a result of hybrid and remote education.
A goal for the YMCA during the summer is to supplement fun activities with education. This summer, Barber is excited to reintroduce in-person learning as well as a space for kids to adventure and ultimately “be kids again.”
Camp Merz, located in Mayville, is also ready to get back to a traditional summer camp setting.
Within Camp Merz are Boy Scouts of America and a small Cub Scouts programs. BSA is made up of four, one-week long sessions which entail different activities such as aquatics, shooting, and Scout skills.
Due to COVID restrictions, Camp Merz officials were forced to change their summer plans last year. Instead of traditional, overnight camp they offered a few virtual programs as well as an in-person day camp which were all well attended.
This summer, Camp Merz will be following CDC guidelines by reducing the number of people at camp. The number of people within each campsite will be lessened and separated from other camp sites to ensure camper safety.
“This summer, I hope we’re going to give the scouts the experience that they hope to have, but make sure we keep it very safe by being extremely cautious,” said Joe DeBiso, director of Camp Merz. “In this situation, I think we can do that.”
“We’re hoping to get things back as close to normal as we possibly can. Scouts are basically a year behind in a lot of advancement, so we hope to get them back on track again,” DeBiso said. “Really, the overall goal that we have each summer is to help Scouts become Eagle Scouts, and we want to make sure we’re really on top of that goal this year, helping the young men and women in the program achieve that goal. In the Scouting world, the goal of the entire year is to get to summer camp. Now with this [a year of COVID restrictions], it’s even more so the goal.”
Elk Lick Scout Reserve in Smethport, Pa., is another summer camp for elementary-age Cub Scouts to have fun and learn a variety of Scout skills.
“Our goal is to get people back on track, get people meeting in person and get kids outside and away from their screens,” said Nathaniel Thornton, Scout executive of Allegheny Highlands Council. “We want to return to normalcy as much as we can.”
The Audubon Community Nature Center (ACNC), located at 1600 Riverside Road in Jamestown, will also be holding its annual summer day camp this year.
Summer day camp at the ACNC allows kids to connect with the outdoors by providing fun, educational and interactive opportunities.
Unlike some camps that had to change the overall makeup of their programs, the ACNC was fortunate enough to be able to hold its day camp, albeit by following COVID protocols.
Like last year, kids at camp will be separated into three different cohorts, with kids taking part in activities and eating lunch in their respective groups. This year, the ACNC will be able to increase their overall numbers from ten to anywhere from twelve to fifteen campers.
“We want to give kids the same genuine, hands-on experience that kids need,” said Education Coordinator and Camp Director Sarah Hatfield. “Kids that come establish a connection with both place and community. With summer camp we want to provide a normal kid experience.”
The program at ACNC is impactful for kids who experience it, with many of them coming back to participate in their Counselors-in-Training and Junior Counselors program or as college-aged volunteers.
Hatfield believes that camp this year is a good opportunity for kids who missed out on normalcy during a year of virtual learning, and that this could be the jump-start needed for many programs to start returning to normal.
More information regarding Camp Onyahsa and Camp Merz can be found at https://www.onyahsa.org and https://www.campmerz.org, respectively. For information regarding the various YMCA day camps, visit https://www.jamestownymca.org/main/for-fun-for-friends-forever. To learn more about the Audubon Summer Day Camp, visit https://auduboncnc.org/daycamp/.