Maine’s summer camp professionals are thinking positively about welcoming 2020 campers in person come June. Yet the continuing unknowns concerning COVID-19 have prompted many camps to focus on sharing the primary values of camp – relationships, activities, and fun – right now. Among those camps is Pine Tree Camp, whose camper population of children and adults with disabilities just might need connection more than ever.
A program of Pine Tree Society, Pine Tree Camp in Rome plans to embark on its 75th summer of providing campers – in a barrier-free setting – recreational activities that are often inaccessible to individuals with disabilities. Located on the shores of North Pond, the camp makes possible participation in swimming, kayaking, fishing, and a broad range of other outdoors and arts activities. And, like the more than 150 other summer camps in Maine, Pine Tree Camp helps campers grow in confidence, independence, and self-esteem. Now, in late April and amidst the backdrop of far more questions than answers about summer 2020, Pine Tree Camp is one of many Maine camps reaching out to its campers virtually.
Meet “Camp to You.”
Dawn Willard-Robinson, longtime Pine Tree Camp director, says the camp’s variety of online programs and events have two primary goals: staying connected, and staying positive. Campers, both children and adults, are spending their days in far different ways than they may be accustomed. Day programs for some campers, and school for others, are “all programs they rely on,” says Willard-Robinson. And, about a month ago, those programs “were gone overnight,” she says.
But, as camp professionals often point out, they are quick to adapt, quick to rely on backup plans when circumstances change. So, it may come as no surprise that each Monday the Pine Tree Camp’s social media platforms list a schedule of events for the week. From campfires and Friday night dance parties to regularly scheduled crafts lessons – all held virtually – members of the camp community strive to maintain essential connections and offer moments of true fun.
Willard-Robinson says both child and adult campers are enjoying the Camp to You effort. For adult campers, she says, “social media is their life.” And from the full community of campers, parents, and caregivers “we’re getting a lot of positive feedback.”
The fun is not lost on the camp’s leadership, either. “It makes my day,” Willard-Robinson says. “It really does.”
Assistant Director Mary Schafhauser, whose background includes two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia, says the camp “had an idea … for quite a while” about connecting virtually with its campers. Now, with coronavirus restrictions and less community support than campers are used to, Schafhauser said recently that camp leaders recognized “this is our moment.”
She and Willard-Robinson have also enlisted help from alumni in planning and presenting “Camp to You” programs. On a recent day, Hunter Chesley, a former staff member and daughter of long-time camp employees Lori and Greg Chesley, led an activity that included fun, creativity, and a whole new way of applying paint to paper. By first combining liquid dish soap and a small amount of paint in a paper cup, then blowing through a straw to bubble the concoction, Hunter gently dabbed paper onto the bubbles to create bright flower petals. She encouraged participants to experiment, using different colors of paint and layering paint to create more intricate flowers.
The programs are brief, interactive, and offer what camps and campers thrive on: a chance to be with friends, to try new activities, and enjoy the familiarity of camp traditions.
“We love to be able to help people build routine,” Schafhauser says. Activities like virtual bingo and scavenger hunts complement the daily programs. And, for Schafhauser, her Peace Corps experience created ample opportunity for learning “how to do more with less.”
“I bring a different lens to something like this,” she says. Indeed, “there were situations in the Peace Corps where we were stuck in our apartment for weeks.”
“Dawn and I keep reminding ourselves,” Schafhauser says, “everyone’s creativity has to be in full force. It’s an exciting time to think ‘could we be doing more all along?’”
Decisions about what summer 2020 will look like will be made in the coming days and weeks. Meanwhile, camps statewide continue to keep the needs of their campers and staff in the forefront. Community, connection, care. Regardless of how COVID-19 affects Maine’s summer camp season, camp professionals are demonstrating that their commitment to those three values will transcend whatever impact the virus carries.
(For more information about Pine Tree Camp’s virtual programming, check out https://www.facebook.com/pinetreecamp/)