W.Pa. summer camp organizations report higher enrollment

| Wednesday, April 23, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

Money is tight for the Russell family.

Tina Russell and her husband are disabled, so they support themselves and their three children with Social Security benefits.

Tina Russell will soon start a part-time job in a grocery store, but the family's strained finances leave little room for extras.

Still, the Lawrenceville couple plans to send their children to a Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania camp this summer with the help of scholarships, as they have for four years.

“We absolutely love the club. And I especially love it because I'm going to be returning to work for the first time after 10 years,” Russell said.

Parents nationwide are arranging child care and activities — such as day and overnight camps and programs offered by museums and zoos — during the summer. Finding affordable, quality programs can be challenging, especially since there is more demand for summer programs because the poor economy led to an increase in households in which both parents work, experts said.

Many operators of summer camps say they are experiencing higher enrollment and more demand for scholarships.

At Antiochian Village Camp in Fairfield, Westmoreland County, summer camp registrations hit a record this year, with just six slots open out of 1,077, said the Very Rev. Anthony G. Yazge, camp director.

Antiochian runs four two-week camp sessions from June 15 to Aug. 8.

Enrollment surpassed 1,000 for the first time three years ago, and it has gone up about 10 percent since then, he said.

About 70 percent of the campers are from two-parent households.

“But many of the women have had to go back to work,” Yazge said.

A two-week camp costs $700. About 1 in 3 campers use scholarships, he said.

Traditional camp activities such as horseback riding, swimming, arts and crafts, basketball and canoeing and Christian education are drawing more participants, he said.

Pleasant Hills resident Sam Esper, 48, who will send his two daughters to the Antiochian camp this summer, considers himself lucky that his children, including a 7-year-old son, will split their time between his, their mother's and their grandmother's homes for most of the summer, eliminating the need for expensive child care or a full summer of camp.

The YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh operates three resident camps in Somerset, Allegheny and Beaver counties and 23 day camps in Allegheny County, said Todd Brinkman, district vice president of camping services.

The price of a one-week day camp is about $180.

“We've seen an increase in the number of weeks that kids are coming for. Now the kids are coming for several weeks, if not the whole summer,” Brinkman said.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania operates nine clubs, each of which has a day camp, mostly in urban areas of Allegheny County and seven in Indiana County, said CEO Mike Hepler.

Six clubs have a weekly fee of $75 per camp, while clubs in Duquesne and West Mifflin are subsidized by Allegheny County and have a minimum fee of $5 per week. The Lawrenceville site, a YMCA and Lawrenceville United, a nonprofit, are combining their camps this summer.

The Boys & Girls Clubs provided $92,229 in scholarships to campers last summer, a 25 percent increase over the past 10 years, Hepler said. Fundraising to offset those costs is a constant challenge, he said.

Last summer, 4,970 children ages 5 to 13 were in camps, compared with about 2,500 a decade earlier, Hepler said.

“The economy plays a major part in this. Parents are looking — they have limited resources today, and they're looking for something that meets their needs and we've been doing it for a long time,” he said.

Low-cost and free summer programs for children fill up quickly in Allegheny County, said Mila Yochum, of Allegheny Partners for Out-of-School Time, which publishes an online list of summer programs for children annually.

The key to finding suitable summer programs is starting early, asking questions about staff qualifications and programming, and being flexible with sessions, experts said.

Fees for nonprofits' camps, such as those operated by YMCAs or churches, will be significantly lower than those for private camps, said Michael Chauveau, executive director of the American Camp Association Keystone chapter in Glenside, Montgomery County.

“There are many ways for a child to enjoy a summer camp. We feel that camp should be for all children,” Chauveau said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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