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Endless Summer: Camps and activities take another step toward ‘normal’

by Dwain Hebda | May 9, 2021 at 2:41 a.m.
(Illustration by Carrie Hill/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Of all of the event and activity casualties of 2020, few hit working families like the loss of supervised summertime activities for children. Across the state, municipal, church and organization-based summer camps were shuttered out of health concerns with covid-19, leaving already-weary parents in a lurch over how to keep kids safe and engaged.

That was then, this is now and the return of summer camps is happening all across Arkansas. In response, parents are jumping at the chance to give their youngsters a fun and educational experience once school lets out.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette found four of these events and spoke to administrators about the need for safety, the feedback from parents ... and the prospect of welcoming kids back, as has been done for generations.

Zoofari, Little Rock, littlerockzoo.com

A counselor guides young campers at the Little Rock Zoo’s Zoofari Camp in 2019. In-person summer camps are back with a vengeance in what appear to be the waning days of covid-19. (Courtesy of the Little Rock Zoo)
A counselor guides young campers at the Little Rock Zoo’s Zoofari Camp in 2019. In-person summer camps are back with a vengeance in what appear to be the waning days of covid-19. (Courtesy of the Little Rock Zoo)

Last summer, the only sounds you'd hear from the Little Rock Zoo were that of the animals. The state's only municipal zoo shut down for much of the year, including its fundraising events and revenue-critical Spring Break, field trip and summer camp seasons.

Zoo Director Susan Altrui is happy that those days appear to be behind her.

"We're thrilled to offer Zoofari in person this year," she says. "Last year, because of covid, we decided to take our Zoofari camp virtual. That was a great way to extend our reach with the program; we had participation from all over the state and we've even had some from outside of the state.

"But obviously, being at the zoo and seeing the animals live, that's something that you really can't replicate in a virtual environment. You get a wonderful educational sense of what the zoo's about and what our conservation message is through the virtual environment, but it's really hard to replicate what it's like to see an animal in person."

A zookeeper shows an egg to campers at the Little Rock Zoo’s Zoofari Camp in 2019. (Courtesy of the Little Rock Zoo)
A zookeeper shows an egg to campers at the Little Rock Zoo’s Zoofari Camp in 2019. (Courtesy of the Little Rock Zoo)

Zoofari, open to children 5 to 14, will be presented in live and online formats for the 2021 summer season. Camps run on one of five weekly themes with the first camp opening May 31 for kids 5-11 while kids 12-14 enjoy three weekly themes, commencing June 7.

Altrui says that changes to the camp format and curriculum, which were adjusted a few years ago, have been quite popular.

"We reworked things recently with the arrival of some of the new leadership in our education department," she says. "We added a new streamlined approach to it. Also, we made it a weeklong program and I think the parents really appreciated that."

And, of course, additional changes have been made for 2021 to maintain safety and distancing guidelines, including mandatory masks for campers, as an extension of general daily operating procedures.

Campers view an elephant during the Little Rock Zoo’s Zoofari Camp in 2019. (Courtesy of the Little Rock Zoo)
Campers view an elephant during the Little Rock Zoo’s Zoofari Camp in 2019. (Courtesy of the Little Rock Zoo)

"We know covid has not gone away, and it's still very much with us. So, we have to be very careful with how we handle children, how we handle our Zoofari Camps and, obviously, how we handle the public in general," Altrui says.

Parents have been quick to respond to the announcement of the summer camps and, Altrui says, many slots are already spoken for. She also pointed out that scholarships are available to help as many kids experience Zoofari as possible.

"Any time you can educate kids and entertain them at the same time, that's hugely important," she says. "That's one of the benefits of the zoo; when we're able to bring animals into the picture, it grabs children's attention. Sometimes, science topics can be super-heavy and boring and not something kids are interested in. But when you start talking about animals, all of a sudden, they perk up and they want to learn more. It's one of the great things about zoos and one of the great things about the camp."

Arkansas FCA Camp, Lonsdale, scafca.org/camp

Girls participate in a discussion at a pre-covid Arkansas Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp in Lonsdale. In-person summer camps are back for 2021. (Courtesy of Arkansas FCA)
Girls participate in a discussion at a pre-covid Arkansas Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp in Lonsdale. In-person summer camps are back for 2021. (Courtesy of Arkansas FCA)

Micah May grew up at camp — literally. His parents, retired educators, opened a Christian day camp 35 years ago near Glen Rose (Hot Spring County) that has become so essential to the community that it received the same designation as a daycare last year. It never missed a beat in 2020.

Given May's background, growing up to head the statewide Fellowship of Christian Athletes leadership camp every summer seems, well, preordained.

"The state office was in a transitional time and they asked our office if we would run the statewide camp," says May, the Fellowship's multi-area director for south central Arkansas. "That's when we started going over to Spring Lake campground in Lonsdale. We'll have students from all over the state come — about 500 kids, 250 junior high [grades 7-9] and 250 senior high [grade 10 to 2021 graduates]." The Arkansas Fellowship of Christian Athletes camps, this year scheduled for June 6-13, combine athletic activities and the usual camp experience with speakers and small groups called huddles, designed to examine areas of faith.

Two participants take a buddy photo at a previous Arkansas Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp in Lonsdale. The camp was missed in 2020, says FCA official Micah May. (Courtesy of Arkansas FCA)
Two participants take a buddy photo at a previous Arkansas Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp in Lonsdale. The camp was missed in 2020, says FCA official Micah May. (Courtesy of Arkansas FCA)

After the national organization canceled all statewide camps last year, it coordinated a virtual camp in its place, which was better than nothing, May says.

"We did nationwide huddle with some pro athletes which was pretty cool; we called it Huddle Up," he says. "We also did divisionwide coaches' camp, which is one-third of the country, with guest speakers like Tony Dungy and Mark Richt. FCA staff like myself signed up and we would get to hear this great speaker and their family talk, then turn around and meet in a huddle."

Still, May says, the Arkansas Fellowship of Christian Athletes summer camp had become such a fixture on the calendar that many Arkansas families felt the loss of the 2020 event very deeply.

"There's definitely some people who come every year [who] were devastated," he says. "Last year, with everything that was going on, there were a lot of mixed emotions. I feel like everyone was understanding with the decisions we made ... and we did what we could last year to stay connected.

Campers run at the Arkansas Fellowship of Christian Athletes summer gathering in Lonsdale. (Courtesy of Arkansas FCA)
Campers run at the Arkansas Fellowship of Christian Athletes summer gathering in Lonsdale. (Courtesy of Arkansas FCA)

"But we knew the kids were ready to get out this year. Sports are now open, so why would we not serve our athletes? They're already out there playing; let's bring them into camp. What I have heard from people is they're excited about overnight camp again. Our enrollment looks very promising."

Asked what it will mean to him to see the first campers arrive, May lights up like a scoreboard.

"We're so excited," he says. "We're not meant to be shut in. We have very high expectations that God is going to redeem the time that was lost last year. We're going all in; we know it's going to be an incredible camp, and I think others feel it too."

Summer Action Camp, Hot Springs, hsymca.org/summer-camp

The Hot Springs YMCA's Summer Action program has been such a cornerstone in the community, not even a global pandemic could derail it.

"We did do day camp last summer. We did," says Lisa Autry, YMCA childcare director. "It was a quarter of the attendance that we normally do, but we held it."

This year, "I know people are becoming more comfortable with getting back into the swing of things," she adds. "I'm seeing a huge turnout already for this summer. It's letting me know parents are more confident in getting their children out and getting going."

The YMCA program offers some of the most accessible camp experiences in the state, with extended drop-off and pick-up times at no extra charge and various financial assistance options. Autry says it's all part of the YMCA's mission to serve as wide a segment of the community as possible.

"We consider it very important to allow every child to have the same great experience, regardless of financial need or limitations that they have," she says. "It's very important to the well-being of their social-emotional state of mind, especially at this point in time. That's one of our causes, to strengthen our community."

The programming reflects this mission with 12 weeks of unique curricula, commencing June 1, that include focuses on the arts; science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education; and conservation.

"We're very intentional with the activities that we give them," Autry says. "It's not sitting in front of a TV screen ... We keep them very engaged because typically when kids are not engaged, they get bored — and that's when they get in trouble. What we do is keep them ... moving from one activity to the next. I hear from parents all the time, 'Oh, we barely got home, got them a bath and fed, and they went to sleep.'"

Nothing speaks to the camp's mission more clearly than the two meals and snack served to every camper, every day, included in the registration fee. Autry established the program after observing disparities in campers' bagged lunches.

"I could look across the table and see this child had the best of the best overflowing out of their lunch box. And then I look over here and this child may have some crackers and whatever the parent had in the home," she says. The YMCA participates in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Summer Food Service Program and therefore camp officials are able to serve the campers breakfast and lunch, Autry explains, adding that the YMCA pays for the snacks.

After the limited number of campers last summer, demand has bounced back with a vengeance, Autry says. But there's still room for more.

"Just think about the opportunity to give children a fun-filled summer. Get them out, get them active," she says to parents. "It's good for them to experience life and get some fun this summer."

SAPling, North Little Rock, nlrpr.org

North Little Rock’s 2019 SAPling (Summer Activity Program) camps included some miniature golf. (Courtesy of North Little Rock Parks and Recreation)
North Little Rock’s 2019 SAPling (Summer Activity Program) camps included some miniature golf. (Courtesy of North Little Rock Parks and Recreation)

Jennie Cunningham, recreation program supervisor for North Little Rock Parks and Recreation, doesn't want to go through another year like the department experienced in 2020. But the downtime gave her crew a running start on building this summer's SAPling camps. (SAP stands for Summer Activity Program.)

"One of the positive things from last year was, we did a lot of the framework for what we could do at any state of the pandemic," she says. "So, the pressure wasn't that strong ... We used feedback from the after-school program, which was the first program we reopened. That was our model for how we could run the summer program. It told us how we needed to do things and what challenges we were going to face."

That planning, plus a reduction in the number of campers for the 2021 sessions, has made SAPling a hot commodity among parents, many of whom are locking up the whole nine-week program.

"Over 90% of our participants are doing the entire summer session," Cunningham says. "It's only been a few weeks and we are already way above target. We have not sold out all of our spots, but we're very near capacity."

Young participants in North Little Rock’s 2019 SAPling (Summer Activity Program) camps enjoy a team exercise. The camps will be back as an in-person option for children this year. (Courtesy of North Little Rock Parks and Recreation)
Young participants in North Little Rock’s 2019 SAPling (Summer Activity Program) camps enjoy a team exercise. The camps will be back as an in-person option for children this year. (Courtesy of North Little Rock Parks and Recreation)

SAPling opens June 7 and runs through Aug. 6, followed by separate one-week mini-skills camps focusing on arts, athletics or dance Aug. 9-13. First- through fifth-graders attend camp at Glenview, North Heights or Sherman Park community centers, while grades six through eight report to Rose City Community Center.

"SAPling isn't just an acronym for a summer program; we've taken that and really took root in the fact that we're dealing with things that grow," Cunningham says. "We want to provide the youth of the community with essential things but also make it fun, educational and exciting. That allows them to grow into well-rooted adults."

Organizers accomplish this by providing specialized activities, lessons and mentors in an all-day format that gives parents flexibility to sign up kids for the activities that appeal to them the most.

Participants in North Little Rock’s 2019 SAPling (Summer Activity Program) camps play a game of Jenga. (Courtesy of North Little Rock Parks and Recreation)
Participants in North Little Rock’s 2019 SAPling (Summer Activity Program) camps play a game of Jenga. (Courtesy of North Little Rock Parks and Recreation)

Cunningham, who has run the program for 22 of her 26 years with the department, says she can't wait for this year's program to get rolling.

"We are so looking forward to this," she says. "We missed the kids last year. All the staff is looking forward to it. Summertime has always been one of our favorite times of year in what we do for the community and those kids. We're with them all day on a daily basis, so we make a lot of friendships. It's just one big fun time.

"Every year with the kids and the staff, when the program ends, we get the summertime blues like, 'Oh no, it's over. We've got to wait again until next year.' So, we're thrilled to bring this back. It's one of my personal favorite programs."

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