A single mom with three sons, Maureen Wrinn knew she faced tough financial choices after losing her job last fall. But one decision was clear all along, despite its price tag: Her oldest son, Corey, would go back to camp in New Hampshire this summer.
"The decision wasn't difficult at all, even though we're struggling," said Wrinn, of Rockport, Mass. "Camp Glen Brook has offered him a sense of place where he's developed into his own self, in a way that only a summer camp can do."
Parents like Wrinn are helping keep America's vast summer camp industry in a relatively upbeat mood as the recession takes a toll on many other sectors. Many camps were booked up weeks or even months ago, and the American Camp Association says overall enrollment for its 2,400 accredited camps is on track to match the past two summers.
Another plus, say camp directors, is that the weak job market means they have their pick among a glut of qualified applicants seeking jobs as counselors.
"Nobody is immune to tough times, but we are a 150-year-old industry, made up of people who have learned to adapt to a changing marketplace," said the camp association's CEO, Peg Smith. "These camps have been through wars, through a depression."
More inquiries about financial assistance
By no means is the industry oblivious to the recession. For example, the ACA's Web site offers tips to camp directors on coping with hard times — ranging from reassessing contracts with suppliers to cutting back on year-round staff.
Moreover, camp directors say the outlook for many parents has changed — there are far more inquiries about financial assistance and more interest in shorter camp sessions. Attendance at informational "camp fairs" for parents has been higher than normal, Smith said.
"What we're seeing is more parents being discriminate shoppers, asking really good, important questions," she said. "The last dollar a parent cuts is the dollar they spend on their child, and they're looking for best investment."
For Maureen Wrinn, Camp Glen Brook — in Marlborough, N.H. — fits that criteria. Corey, 14, has gone there the past three summers, and this year will be his last as a camper. Full tuition for his three-week session would be $2,800, but the family hopes financial aid will offset the cost a bit.
Whatever the final bill, it's worth it to the Wrinns, who have cut back on guitar lessons for Corey, nixed swimming lessons for the two younger boys, and try to keep their thermostat at 66 degrees to cut heating costs.
Corey, in an e-mail, described the camp as "a great place to relax and get away from all the craziness at home like my mom telling me to do things and my brothers bothering me."
But he also expressed gratitude.
"My mom is going through a hard time right now and I appreciate that she is making it possible for me to go," he wrote.
Working parents rely on camps
Camp Glen Brook's director, Twain Braden, said he's detected unease among numerous parents as they ponder making the financial commitment for their children to attend this summer.
"A lot of parents have come to rely on camps," he said. "If both have jobs, they need camp as a kind of daycare. It's not just a luxury any more."
Glen Brook, which hosts about 80 campers at a time, is taking steps of its own to control its budget — expanding a garden so it now provides a hefty chunk of the vegetables consumed by campers and staff.
"It didn't start out with the intention of saving money, but suddenly, when the bottom fell out of the economy, we realized how lucky we were," Braden said.
Betty Bussel, who heads the American Camp Association's New England section, said other cost-conscious steps that camps are taking include forming cooperatives to make bulk purchases and shifting some field trips closer to the camp.
"Many camps that never used to allow shorter sessions are allowing them — suddenly offering two- or three-week options," Bussel said. "Some are offering discounts if you sign up early or bring a sibling along."
Many New England camps have a built-in advantage — having served multiple generations of families who loyally perpetuate the ties.
At Camp Lanakila in Fairlee, Vt., a boys' camp founded in 1922, this summer is fully booked, with a waiting list, said director Barnes Boffey.
But Boffey, like some other directors, said he has some apprehensions about the summer of 2010 if the recession continues — particularly in regard to recruiting the 8- and 9-year-olds who'd be coming to camp for the first time.
More campers, shorter stays
At Shaffer's High Sierra Camp in California's Tahoe National Forest, director Scott Shaffer says he expects to serve more campers this summer, who will stay on average for a shorter time.
"For parents, even if it's tough financially, they'd rather cut back a little than eliminate it altogether," he said.
Also full up, though only three years old, is Camp Kupugani in Leaf River, Ill., a multicultural girls' camp that has been able to expand from 25 to 50 campers despite the recession.
The camp has a scholarship fund to help ensure a diverse enrollment. Director Kevin Gordon said about 40 percent of last year's campers received some aid.
One of the families expecting some scholarship help this year was able to afford the full $1,500 tuition for a two-week session last year, but has taken a hard hit due to the recession.
Joe Mathy of Lisle, Ill., said his landscaping business has suffered as customers cut back on spending. He's already paid a $400 deposit for his 12-year-old daughter, Sophia, to go back to Kupugani for two weeks starting in June, and hopes the scholarship fund will cover the rest.
"Our daughter liked the camp very much," Mathy said. "It opened up her eyes to what the world is all about."
The Mathys' decision echoes those made in many budget-conscious families as they weigh whether to send a child back to a camp they've already embraced, said Sean Nienow of the National Camp Association, which helps parents select a camp.
"If Johnny's been going the past three or four years, to sit down and say 'You can't go' — that's a very difficult message to give," Nienow said.