By Jared Redding
UM journalism student
Like hundreds of other college students who spend their summers working at summer camps, Ole Miss IMC student Cayman Cottrell planned to spend her summer making sure campers at Camp Lakewood have the memorable summer they all signed up for.
The camp, located in Potosi, Missouri, is affiliated with the YMCA and has been a summer home to children and staff from over 10 countries for years.
But with so many summer plans now being canceled or postponed as the threat of COVID-19 lingers, she, like many others in her position, are beginning to wonder if they are next in line.
“The camp directors have done their best to communicate that they are taking things as they come but very hopeful that the summer will go on,” Cottrell said.
Jim Ray, former camp director of Central Hill Baptist Retreat near West, Mississippi, said that the pandemic is the worst thing he’s seen in 10-plus years of leading camps.
“I can equate this to a natural disaster,” Ray said. “In 2010, we had tornados hit camp. We seriously did not know if we were going to have camp or not. It was iffy whether or not we’d have camp. I knew from previous experience at Gulf Shores, it was shut down completely by Hurricane Katrina. They never recovered, as much as people wanted it to be rebuilt.”
Even if certain camps are permitted to operate under new specific safety guidelines, Cottrell says staffing will present its own problems.
“My main concern is that since a portion of the staff are international, [if] any travel bans are implemented or extended between now and then, we could be very understaffed,” Cottrell said.
Half of the typical staff at Camp Lakewood come from abroad, according to Cottrell.
“Most US-based staff are from Missouri, and this summer there are about 50 international staff representing 10-plus countries,” Cottrell said.
Ray says he doesn’t believe there’s any way to safely salvage the upcoming summer season, even if it is needed to keep a small market camp like Sardis Lake Christian Camp afloat.
“I honestly would argue against opening camp unless there’s a vaccine available,” Ray said. “If you open your camp now and navigate all the obstacles, that’s great. But if you have one kid who has it, that’s going to cripple you. Your enrollment will go way down.”
With enrollment numbers looking scarce, a financial fallout could be inevitable, according to University of Mississippi sport and recreation professor, David Waddell.
“The deadliest thing about summer camps going through this is that most of them get 60 to 70 percent of their year’s funds in three months,” Waddell said. “I would guess that the hope there that some of the government funding, the payroll protection plan, some of the bills going through Congress to support small businesses, include a lot of nonprofit groups.”
Camp Lakewood has been a little more fortunate thanks to adequate resources and being able to draw from a larger market.
Others like Sardis Lake Christian Camp, which operates on a shoestring budget, are focused on fighting for long-term survival. Part of survival is the people who run things on and behind the scenes, according to Ray.
“They’ve been planning to work for you since you recruited them in the fall,” Ray said about general camp operation. “Most staffers need the money. All the sudden, you don’t have a job. Then you have your permanent staff. If you have someone there who’s been there 10 years and lay them off, once you open back up they’ve gone on to some other job. They can’t put their life on hold. There’s a domino effect there.”
For Sardis Lake Christian Camp, one potential hurdle in trying to salvage revenue is finding an investment pitch that, while reasonable, is considerate of others and those nearing the same situation.
“We’re like a third-tier non-profit,” Sean O’Neal said. “If you’re going to give your money somewhere, do think you’re going to give it to a Christian camp for a week or for kids to get medical treatment? Eleven dollars a month for kids starving around the world or for a kid to make sure he goes to summer camp? It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs…we could go out and beg our churches for money, but they’re financially hurting as well.”
Another viable option, according to multiple sources, would be to seek out private investors with a soft heart for the camp’s vision and similar special interests.
“I’d love to meet someone,” O’Neal said. “I’d pitch that this will be our 53rd year of camp, if we’re allowed to have it…we would need about $500 a month to survive without having camp for all the essential needs.”
After the tornado in 2010, Ray found himself in a similar situation, and was forced to send out an SOS.
“Media plays a huge role in getting everything out there,” Ray said. “You have a business, but you have a brand to protect as well. If something is in motion, it’ll stay in motion. This COVID-19 will affect everything. Going one year without camp, you lost a big chunk. If you go two summers without camps, that is so brutal.”
As of now, all three camps are still planning to hold camp with their own timeline and methods of hosting this summer.
For Camp Lakewood, the only thing that has been delayed as of now is staff training, delayed a week until May 17. When open to campers, things will look a little different, as expected.
“Effective immediately, they will perform temperature checks of all campers/guests during check-in and any person with fever of 100 or higher will be asked to return home,” Cottrell said about Camp Lakewood’s current plan. “They’ve installed hand sanitizing stations outside all entrances of the dining halls, cabins, and activity areas. Equipment will also be cleaned and sanitized beyond usual high standards.”
For now, Sardis Lake Christian Camp has canceled all May and June sessions. They are still hoping that some July sessions may still take place.
“We’re in a wait-and-see mode,” O’Neal said.
Central Hills Christian Camp, under the current direction of Shane Thrash, has already made the decision to suspend all camp activity until July.
Many other camps across America have done similar or more extreme measures. According to Addie Grafton, a camper at Kanakuk Kamps in Branson, MO, just seeing familiar faces this summer is enough.
“I know Kanakuk will do its best to give everyone an enjoyable experience,” Grafton said. “Just seeing my friends that I only see once a year would make it all worth it despite any precautionary measures.”
Because each has the capability to bring surprises based on circumstances, each will be ready to take on the challenges, including O’Neal.
“My optimism lies on my ability to be nimble and pull things off,” O’Neal said. “I’ll be looking ahead though. I can say if we do have camp, it won’t be a great one, cause I’ll have to really rely on suppliers, think hard, and think fast. I can pull something out, if anything. I’ll do whatever to keep us afloat.”