PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – School isn’t out for at least two more months in Oregon and already summer camps say it’s shaping up to be another busy year.
Tony Deis, one of the co-founders of Trackers Earth in Portland and Sandy, said his summer camps have been filling quicker than they have in the past. Spaces are being booked 5-10% faster than they were pre-pandemic, he said.
Deis believes it’s a result of fewer summer camp providers operating in the area due to a variety of challenges.
“A lot of providers had to reduce their capacity due to inflation that increased operating cost,” he said. “Also, due to the pandemic, there’s been staffing challenges and there’s also been location challenges.”
Everyone’s doing their best, but Deis said it still doesn’t pan out for parents in search of summer child care for their children.
To help meet the increased demand, Trackers Earth has increased capacity from what it offered before the pandemic began, but Deis still said he’d like to see the number of camp organizations grow to provide needed support to families.
“This is a continuum of care. Children going from school to engaging in educational activities and expanded learning in the summer as well,” he said.
Other camps have also seen demand grow or remain high since the pandemic.
Imagine Theatre saw a nearly 27% growth in student enrollment in 2022, which Executive Director Alec Martinez said was led by high summer enrollment.
The Sauvie Island Center’s Farm Camp has consistently sold out over the past few years. So far, Executive Director Joanne Lazo said 2023 registrations are a little slower than usual, but she believes they’ll be at capacity soon.
The issue is something the state is focusing on as well. In 2022, state lawmakers voted to invest $50 million into community-based summer programming and $100 million in schools for summer programming. The funding helped expand summer camp programs and provided families with financial assistance.
In 2023, Sen. Michael Dembrow, a Democrat from Portland and chair of the Senate Education Committee, and Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, a Democrat from Corvallis, are co-sponsoring a similar bill. Senate Bill 531 would allocate a certain amount of money from the General Fund to establish the Summer and After-School Learning and Enrichment Grant Program.
The amount the bill would allocate has yet to be decided.
“There are not enough programs. I mean, that’s always been the case. We just notice it more now because we have heightened awareness,” said Beth Unverzagt, director of the Oregon Afterschool & Summer for Kids Network, known as Oregon ASK.
The network is part of a national initiative to address issues in afterschool and summer programs, whether that be ensuring there are enough programs to place children into, helping families locate programs near them, or lobbying for more state funding to support expanded learning areas.
Unverzagt has been with Oregon ASK for 18 years since it started in 2005 and has worked with the governor’s office and lawmakers to make them aware of summer programming issues. The network has also provided free training so that people can start their own summer or afterschool programs, ensuring there are more options available to families.
“To meet the needs of families, you have to do more,” she said.
Oregon ASK is working to do more by building interactive maps where families can locate summer and afterschool programs close to where they live.
In addition to using the interactive maps, Unverzagt recommends parents on the hunt for summer programs start by checking with their school to see if they have a list of what’s offered locally. If the school doesn’t, she suggests families reach out to Oregon ASK and they can help with recommendations.
Deis said he knows it sounds cliché, but it’s important for families to register their kids for camp as soon as they can. He also told parents to try to only register kids for camp when they’re quite certain they won’t need to cancel. Canceling might result in another child who could have filled the spot missing out on attending camp.
He also encouraged parents to look at a wide variety of programs and to let kids have a say in what they want to do in the summer.
“We really want kids to come and build the skills of independence at camp in a way that goes beyond what they can build at school. And this is the opportunity for them to do that,” he said. “If you involve your child in the choice from the get-go, then it’s going to go well for everyone.”
Trackers Earth is an outdoor education organization. The camps focus on getting kids outside and teaching them skills that help develop resilience, grit, confidence and thoughtfulness.
Deis strongly encourages parents to sign kids up for summer camp, whether at Trackers Earth or elsewhere, to help ensure children’s education continues through the summer. He said summer camps often provide kids with extracurricular activities they won’t get in the classroom.