Summer camps in Maine offer countless benefits. Just as tourists flock to the state each summer to take advantage of mountains, coastline, and the terrain in between, thousands of youngsters come to Maine for a camp experience. Skills and adventure, friendship and fun.
But while many Maine camps recruit across the nation, even across the Atlantic, the state’s thriving camp industry also reaches large numbers of young Mainers. From Maine’s cities and its towns, girls and boys take the opportunity each summer to participate in new communities, make new friends, take on new challenges. The vast wonders of Maine camps attract youngsters many time zones away, yes, but they also reach kids in the 16 counties of this very state.
Every summer, in the small community of Stoneham, Camp Susan Curtis welcomes hundreds of kids. They are all from Maine and, aside from a small registration fee, they attend camp free of charge. Camp Director Terri Mulks says campers come via school referral partners; the only qualifying requirement is that applicants be eligible for free or reduced lunch according to USDA standards.
Mulks says the camp’s impact on children is often revealed in reflection letters they write to thank Susan Curtis Foundation donors. Among campers’ observations is the feeling of being accepted for who they are, Mulks says. But there are many other outcomes as well, including the fact that campers who have attended camp for four or more years, and participated in its leadership program, have a 100 percent high school graduation rate.
The camp’s programs – four two-week sessions serving kids from grades three through nine, plus leadership programming for grades 10 through 12 – provide a broad range of traditional camp activities. In addition, older campers can pursue art, science and technology, or community service interests. Programs in outdoor living and athletic pursuits are designed to build skills, plus leadership abilities.
Summer 2019 will be the camp’s 45th season, and Mulks says plans include celebratory events. If enrollment goals are met, those events will be enjoyed by a full camp that includes kids from all 16 counties, she says. It also means continually evaluating space, staff, and program needs. “I don’t want a waiting list,” she says. “I want to serve all the kids who want to be served.”
The Girls Scouts of Maine also reaches throughout Maine to enroll girls in its two camps, Camp Pondicherry in Bridgton, and Camp Natarswi, bordering Baxter State Park in Millinocket. Mary Ellen Deschenes, the organization’s chief of outdoor operations, says the mission to serve Maine Girls Scouts draws campers from throughout Maine, many of whom are not active Girl Scout participants but seek the camp experience the organization offers. More than 500 girls – “a handful from out-of-state” – took advantage of a week or more at the camps last summer, Deschenes says. She says the camps’ tuition fee of $440 per week-long session helps make camp accessible to a broader range of participants. A scholarship fund helps defray costs for qualifying campers as well. In addition, Deschenes says girls can earn a free session at camp through fundraising efforts – product sales that take place throughout the school year and include the celebrated Girl Scout cookies. About one-third of last summer’s campers were there thanks to such efforts, she says, and 172 have reached the first sales milestone this year.
Deschenes says the Girl Scouts, founded 107 years ago, have a long-standing mission of promoting outdoor activities and “we keep that very much alive.” Indeed at Camp Natarswi girls can participate in a four-week Junior Maine Guide program, which includes training in a vast range of outdoor living skills – canoeing to axemanship, shelter and fire building to tree identification. JMG candidates then attend a five-day testing camp with aspiring JMGs from other camps around the state.
Camp Pondicherry’s program differs somewhat from Camp Natarswi’s. Deschenes says, and geography doesn’t necessarily dictate which camp girls attend. Youngsters from Aroostook County may travel to Bridgton, while girls in southern Maine may enroll at Natarswi. Either way, “we have a strong program,” Deschenes says. Unique and affordable, the camps are promoted at camp fairs, with the distribution of printed brochures, and by staying connected to Girl Scouts and girls who have already attended the camps. Deschenes says other efforts include special weekend programs, “mini camps,” where Girls Scout troops participate in a weekend of activities, or special camp rental arrangements for troops to “get girls outside.”
On Maine’s midcoast, Jessica Decke directs the 4-H Camp and Learning Center at Tanglewood, in Lincolnville. The program was established in 1982, and Decke says its original directors were dedicated to “developing a summer camp affordable to Maine families, especially those in rural communities.” That commitment continues today, she says.
And because not all families are familiar or comfortable with an overnight experience for their children, the camp offers a day program in addition to its traditional residential offerings, Decke says. Either way, Decke says a camp experience is promoted as “an investment in the development of a child.” Scholarship support is available, she says, and “we don’t make it hard” for families to request that support. All families pay something, creating “a sense of ownership.”
“We work with each family,” she says.
Between the Tanglewood and Blueberry Cove 4-H Camp programs, about 1200 kids were served last summer, Decke says. Demand for the four and five-year-old program has increased dramatically, she says. “People need childcare.” The benefits of the camp programs – offering ample time outside and a focus on socialization skills – are considered by many families “a long-term investment in the wellness of the child.”
Decke says the organization’s year-round involvement in the community – through science education in schools – also offers a unique opportunity to connect with kids. The “adult role model” kids saw at camp may now be the “person teaching,” she says.
In Southern Maine, Camp Ketcha in Scarborough also strives to present adult role models to the youngsters they serve from area communities. “We’re focused on giving kids a classic summer camp experience,” says Executive Director Tom Doherty. That means offering activities, friendships, and social skills that help kids succeed, he says.
As a day camp, Camp Ketcha’s reach into the community is broad; Doherty says well over 300 kids are in camp each summer day. Those youngsters, aged four to 14, experience a variety of situations at home, he says, and camp offers a place where “kids can be kids.” Those kids often continue into the camp’s counselor and leadership training programs, Doherty says. “It’s a pleasure to prepare for summer,” he says.
While they are enjoying the pleasure of being kids, campers participate in a full range of traditional camp programs, from swimming to archery to a ropes course. The camp has also revamped its barn program to offer year-round farm education. Doherty says playful and caring staff members provide role models different from parents and teachers. The organization is also a licensed mental health agency and is able offer a variety of supports to the kids it serves.
Camp Ketcha also has year-round programming, a pre-school as well as after-school offerings. As a result, for some youngsters the facility is their 12-month “place to go,” Doherty says. A scholarship fund – which has recently tripled – helps support needy families, he says. In addition, revenues from facility rentals to wedding parties, plus proceeds from the Portland Gear Hub, which sells donated outdoor recreation equipment, help keep camp tuition down.
Camp Ketcha, along with all Maine youth camps, use a variety of marketing methods to reach campers. Reaching Maine’s youth population includes holding off-season events, advertising, word-of-mouth recommendations, and camp fairs – where dozens of camp representatives gather to share information to interested families. Maine Summer Camps, a Portland-based nonprofit supporting Maine camps, sponsors such camp fairs each winter. It also enables camp searches and research via its online “Find a Camp” tool on its website (https://mainecamps.org).
Maine camp directors tell parents there is a camp for every child, camps for different personalities, interests, ages and expectations. Those directors are planning for summer 2019, recruiting campers and the staff members who will support, teach, and nurture them. Maine kids may have the state’s natural beauty in their backyard, but whether they live in city, suburb, or countryside, there is much to learn from a camp experience in their home state. The camps described here are just a handful of the many camp organizations in Maine promoting the social growth, skill development, and joy of being outdoors, to Maine kids of all ages. As Camp Ketcha’s Tom Doherty says, camp is a “happy go lucky place,” a place where kids are playful and content as they enjoy activities and socialization away from the stressors they may experience elsewhere. Camp directors want Maine kids to be in on the fun.