Camp drop-off was just finishing up when I arrived at the YMCA Monday morning. A single car rolled up along the building’s right side, and a young, masked camper clambered out. Two staff members greeted him from beneath a tent, sheltering themselves from the 10 am sun. The duo wore matching tie-dyed tank tops, and in front of them, a foldable table displayed items of importance: a basket of surgical and fabric masks, a squirt bottle of hand sanitizer, and a sign that read, “Welcome to Camp Kindness Week Three.”
We’ve all followed arrows through the aisles of Stop & Shop, or fiddled with the mask that just won’t sit comfortably on our nose. These precautions are slowly becoming second nature to us, but for Island summer camps, COVID-19 practices and guidelines are new territory.
This is what I learned from the YMCA’s summer camp and afterschool director, Tara Dinke,l and Kelly Neadow, senior program director of youth and staff development. This year’s camp is unlike any that came before it — so much so that’s taken on a new name.
“Usually our camp is called Camp Terra Mare, but we changed it to Camp Kindness this year, because more than anything we need kindness right now,” Dinkel said.
Camp Kindness started its third week of programming August 3, with a pirate theme and a bounty of pandemic protocols. Only 50 campers are permitted at this year’s camp, as opposed to the usual 100-plus. For YMCA members, a week at Camp Kindness costs $270, with a $15 registration fee. The weekly price rises to $325 for nonmembers. Across the board, additional siblings can tag along for $15 each.
Each camper is screened upon arrival with a series of questions, including whether they’ve experienced symptoms of COVID-19 or spent time with someone who has tested positive. Before starting the day, campers wash or sanitize their hands at one of the many sinks or hand-sanitizing stations. Campers are only permitted to interact with their group, or “family,” at this year’s camp. These are five families total, grouped based on camper age.
As we spoke under the check-in tent, Camp Kindness’ eldest family of campers walked through the YMCA campus. Most campers wore masks, though two or three had pulled them down around their neck or chin. Some campers walked side by side, while others stayed at a distance.
Neadow explained that Camp Kindness staff try to keep camper masks on, and give outdoor “mask breaks” if a camper becomes uncomfortable. “We explain social distancing and masks the best that we can, and we strongly encourage children to participate in that. We don’t discipline here at all, but for lack of a better term, we’d never be upset with a child for not wanting to wear one,” Neadow said.
Campers check in each morning with the same counselor. They report to their family’s designated outdoor area, where they leave their belongings in individual baskets that are cleaned nightly. “All the Y staff have come together to build what we have here. Our housekeeping department is obviously a huge player,” Neadow said. “They’re here as many hours as our camp staff is here, because they’re right behind everyone, cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.”
As the camp days unfold, each family participates in a separate activity. Many are outdoor, but while inside the YMCA building, each family uses their own classroom space. While one group has arts and crafts time (using only their individual materials), another enjoys an outdoor fitness class with YMCA health and wellness director Asil Cash. The Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival has provided some of their resources, allowing campers to watch movies or participate in film-based activities. Campers even have scheduled blocks of ice-skating time at the M.V. Ice Arena, and swimming at the YMCA pool.
Only a handful of events take place at the same time for all campers, including lunchtime and “Camper Connection,” which acts as a check-in for campers. Even these events take place within the individual families, rather than as a group.
“For a lot of us, the camp magic comes from those big gatherings, but that’s not for everybody. For some of these kids, this could work out better than a typical camp model,” Neadow said.
Dinkel noted optimistically that having fewer campers has allowed for a more personal experience. “We’re able to engage with them. We actually get to sit down and have conversations with them,” Dinkel said. “We know all 50 kids by heart.”
As parents themselves, Dinkel and Neadow have been thrilled to receive a great deal of support from both campers and their guardians. “We’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback,” Neadow said, recalling one young camper’s mother claiming her son’s first day at Camp Kindness was “the best day of his life.”
“This is the first time the kids have been out of quarantine, so they’re just loving being around other kids and not being stuck at home,” Dinkel said.
According to Dinkel and Neadow, setting up a YMCA camp for this summer proved challenging at first. “Early June, you know, everything was still a little scary when we had to be making these decisions,” Neadow said. “The biggest question was, ‘Can we do it and keep our staff safe?’ We knew kids would need it and families would need it, and little by little it grew until we could say yes.”
“Now it’s turned into this beautiful thing,” Dinkel said.
Neadow agreed. “It wouldn’t feel right if we weren’t doing this. We’re just really happy it all worked out the way it did,” Neadow said.
Another camp, similar tale
There’s a similar story to be shared at the Martha’s Vineyard Boys & Girls Club. Their summer program, Camp MV, opened to Island youth on July 6. Since then, the camp has been operating carefully, and with the kids in mind.
This year’s program is limited to only 66 campers, compared to their usual group of 120 to 130. Drop-off is staggered, starting around 7:45 am. Campers are separated into “pods” of eight, with two additional group leaders. Everyone, campers and staff alike, stays only with their pod throughout the day.
Jessie Damroth, chief executive officer of the M.V. Boys & Girls Club, outlined Camp MV’s extensive sanitization schedule. Separate cleaning crews come in every 90 minutes to sanitize surfaces, and at the end of the day, the Boys & Girls Club building is deep-cleaned through electrostatic fogging. Thirteen new hand-sanitizing stations are spaced throughout the building, as well as an additional six outdoors.
According to Damroth, Camp MV spends as much time in the outdoors as possible. “We obviously will have days where the heat or humidity are too high, and on those selected days we do fire up the HVAC system,” Damroth said. On these occasions, the Boys & Girls Club building is ventilated by fans and open windows.
Masks are a requirement at Camp MV. According to Damroth, there has been little issue with enforcing this rule during camp hours. “They wear them inside and outside. We wanted the kids to get used to it, but also the staff. In this environment, it’s just a safer practice,” Damroth said.
Mask breaks are permitted for campers, as long as they follow a set of guidelines. “Every pod has a different entrance and exit door in our facility, so there’s an area they can step out into and still be monitored if they need to take a break,” Damroth said.
During outdoor activities, campers can remove their masks only after stepping six feet away from their group. Damroth explained that teaching campers to visualize six feet of distance has been key. “If we have a 12-year-old, we might say, ‘This is your favorite basketball player, this is how tall they are.’ Putting it into relatable terms has made all the difference in the world,” Damroth said.
Due to these extensive protocols, Camp MV is unable to take the field trips that the Boys & Girls Club is known to take. In their place, the Camp MV team has found new ways to provide their campers with an Island experience. Educational components from the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, The Trustees of Reservations, and the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival have all been incorporated into the Camp MV curriculum.
Damroth admits that holding Camp MV has taken great effort. “COVID regulations are challenging, more than ever before. They’re exhausting,” Damroth said. Regardless, the Boys & Girls Club team knew from the start that Camp MV would be a necessity this year.
“If you don’t have safe childcare, especially ‘COVID-safe,’ then you’re going to have issues with unsafe childcare. That’s why we knew we needed to move forward,” Damroth said.
New way of FARM life
The FARM Institute in Katama is another Island camp up and running this year. If you’ve ever been, you know this local spot is characterized by wide-open spaces and fresh air. This makes the farm a somewhat unique camp location, and in the age of COVID-19, perhaps an ideal one.
The FARM Institute has been holding two new programs this season in place of their summer camp. “Mornings on the Farm at TFI” is a COVID-compliant alternative to the traditional camp experience, running Monday through Friday, 9 am to noon. Additionally, “Farmer for a Day” allows families to visit the institute and enjoy the farm experience, Monday through Friday, 1 pm to 3 pm.
I arrived at The FARM Institute on a foggy Tuesday morning, and was struck by how empty the farm seemed. The main building was posted with signs, some reading, “Sorry, we’re closed,” and others displaying cartoon pigs in masks. On the porch, a staff member accompanied a group of three children as they pulled what one called, “very cold pizza” from their lunchboxes.
The FARM Institute education manager, Lily Robbins, gave me a tour of the farm, explaining that the small number of people at TFI is simply part of new protocol. “All the kids are only part of their own pod, or their own quarantine group,” Robbins said. “We figured that’s the safest way to have kids here with our staff. We don’t have to worry about them interacting with each other if they’re going home and eating dinner together,” Robbins said.
Each pod is made up of at least two participants, ages 6 and up. Pods sign up together, meaning participants come from the same household or shared space. When on the farm, they interact only with staff, and the other members of their pod.
For FARM Institute members, the base price for two participants is $600, plus $300 for each additional child. For nonmembers, these prices increase to a base of $800 for two participants, and an additional $400 for each child after that.
Robbins was quick to acknowledge that not every family may be able to easily pay these prices, and that the Institute tries to increase accessibility whenever possible. Their Island discount offers a 20 percent price drop to any Island family or child who attends an Island school. A scholarship program is also offered to anyone who wishes to apply. “They don’t have to prove taxes, they don’t have to turn any paperwork in, we just ask for a statement of need, and we will work with them,” Robbins said.
Like the YMCA’s Camp Kindness, each participant is screened with a series of symptom-related questions. “Even before they sign up, the parents have to fill out a pretty rigorous online form with all their child’s medical information. We also have them do a 14-day prescreening form,” Robbins said.
Mornings on the Farm participants get to experience a variety of creative, educational, and farm-centric activities. Each one is responsible for a daily morning chore; Robbins gave examples such as collecting eggs, feeding the chickens, or pulling weeds.
Throughout the day, participants move throughout the FARM Institute space. While the main building remains closed, the barn is open on both ends, creating a spacious and well-ventilated indoor area. Each pod occupies its own room in the barn, where they can carry out activities and lessons in each other’s company. On this particular day, a pod of two siblings crafted cases for an egg drop. Between the pair’s concoctions of cardboard, construction paper, and tape, I’ll bet the egg stayed safe on its way down.
Mornings on the Farm participants are permitted to interact with the farm animals, an opportunity that general public visitors do not have at this time. These animals are often incorporated into program activities. Robbins motioned to a boxlike wooden structure within the goat pen, built by a pod from the previous week. “They put all the pallets together, they learned how to use tools, they worked together and designed the whole thing,” Robbins said. With one open side, the goats can use the structure to avoid rain, find shade, or simply jump and play on.
The FARM Institute enforces a rigid protocol for interacting with the farm animals. The goat pen is roped off and enclosed by a gate, which only staff are permitted to touch. If a pod wishes to enter the pen, each participant must sanitize their hands, then put on disposable gloves. Upon exiting the pen, participants must immediately remove their gloves and drop them into a trash bag beside the gate, then sanitize again. Participants must repeat this process if they are interacting with the goats for more than 15 minutes at a time.
According to Robbins, the programs from previous years have been largely based around education. “We’ve called our counselors ‘educators,’ because they really are doing lessons with the kids,” Robbins said. While education remains an integral part of this year’s program, Mornings on the Farm brings an enhanced focus to each participant’s general well-being.
“These kids have been going through so much. We just want them to be out in nature, interacting with people other than their parents, and feeling somewhat normal — being able to get their minds off of things,” Robbins said.