In any other June, camp directors like Norman Thombs, Executive Director of Camp Mechuwana in Winthrop, would be immersed in staff training and final preparations in anticipation of youngsters’ arrival. But, as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic, only about two dozen camps across Maine will open this summer – in July for shortened sessions and an abundance of Covid-19 protective modifications. The majority, like Mechuwana, have suspended their 2020 seasons.
But Thombs, who has been at the helm of the United Methodist camp for more than 30 years, will be far from idle. Nor will a small group of his college-aged staff. Since March, Thombs, his crew of young adults, and a band of volunteers have continued to put Mechuwana’s mission into action by preparing thousands of meals for schoolchildren in their region.
Thombs, like so many camp directors, knows all about youngsters in need. And when it comes to feeding children whose families experience food insecurity, Thombs is a pro. Camp Mechuwana has participated in the State’s summer meals program for two decades by enrolling children who rely on state-provided meals.
So, when schools shut their doors in March, and Thombs learned some were unequipped to continue to participate in the State’s free breakfast and lunch program, Camp Mechuwana jumped in.
As Maine schools closed, colleges nationwide did as well. A group of the camp’s staff members – experienced counselors – landed back Mechuwana. After self-quarantining, they got to work in the kitchen, making those meals for needy children. The crew is still at it and will be through August.
“I talked to Walter Beesley (Maine Department of Education Child Nutrition Director) about how to get set up as a kitchen, did the paperwork – those guys were unbelievable at the State – and within 48 hours we were ready to go, handing out meals in Monmouth,” Thombs says. Similarly, Thombs says, the town of Winthrop was struggling. After conversations with school leadership and, again, the State, Thombs says his crew added Winthrop to their list.
Camp Mechuwana’s efforts have continued to expand. Weekend meals are now delivered by volunteers to Mt. Blue schools, as well as Vienna. Other school systems have also reached out; Mt. Abram, Phillips and Strong schoolchildren now received weekend meals. All told, Camp Mechuwana’s efforts now add up to more than 1000 meals per week.
And, these days, Thombs says “phones are ringing off the hook.”
“I feel like we’re in a pretty good space,” he says. “We can produce a lot of meals.” And although state reimbursement covers a large percentage of the camp’s expenses, Thombs is grateful for the donations he has received.
One such donation of food came from Tracy St. Onge, director of The Summer Camp, in Washington. That camp serves low-income and foster girls from both urban and rural settings and, like so many camps, cancelled its 2020 season. St. Onge supplied Thombs with nonperishables that she had already ordered. “Tracy was wonderful,” Thombs says.
Food donations have to “fit into the school lunch program,” he says. “There are pretty strict guidelines.” In addition, although snack expenses are not reimbursed, the camp “goes overboard” in ensuring youngsters’ meals include snacks. Another unreimbursed expense is the cost of transporting meals. “We’re beating our camp vehicles into the ground,” Thombs says.
Thombs’s “handpicked” kitchen team consists of eight young adults, aged 20 to 24. They are residents of communities that include Bangor, Cape Elizabeth, Farmington, Whitefield and Yarmouth, and attend “a diverse group of colleges.” Among the crew are two students whose college graduations “were taken away,” Thombs says.
“They’re an amazing group of people,” he says, comprised of seasoned Mechuwana camp staff members who have kitchen experience. Most have known each other since elementary school. “I knew they could work out conflict, etc.” Thombs says. Nonetheless, Thombs says it was hard to be unable to offer positions to every Mechuwana staff member who expressed interest.
Members of Thombs’s assembled team each has their own room in the camp’s retreat center. Thombs says he “took a hands-off approach,” and the group immediately fell into “camp staff mode.” Team members created work schedules, along with time for reading, rest, and workouts.
“It’s very structured. They’re definitely camp people,” he says.
And while these individuals are paid for their efforts, Thombs says they are benefit from a mental health standpoint. “One thing we talk about is they feel very lucky because they know they’re helping people. That’s the type of people they are anyway.”
Yet they have yet to see a single child they are helping to feed, Thombs points out. They load vans, and hear stories, but do not leave Mechuwana’s campus to assist with deliveries. In fact, Thombs says, if they do leave – for example, for a quick camping trip – “they go as a group and stay as a group.” In addition, they may have no visitors.
“We hope at some point this summer we could do a rotation,” he says, enabling crew members to assist with deliveries to pick-up sites.
But right now, a crew of volunteers drives vans to delivery sites, where other volunteers hand out food. Among those drivers is a number of area coaches. “Some haven’t missed a day,” he says. And all of them know their communities.
“The really cool thing is, we know these families on a first name basis,” Thombs says. “A lot [of families that Mechuwana serves] never thought they’d be in this situation. We make it very unthreatening, create an atmosphere of fun.”
Summer looks very different for children across Maine and across the country. But children are still hungry, and Camp Mechuwana continues to feed them. The camp is fulfilling its specific mission, to be sure, but their work is representative of camps’ missions statewide: above all, youngsters need health and safety and community. Camp may be closed, but Norm Thombs, the Camp Mechuwana team, and those thousands and thousands of meals, continue to make children their top priority.
(Camp Mechuwana continues to appreciate donations supporting its efforts. Contact information can be found at its website, www.mechuwana.org)