The sun is barely above the treeline as Chris Shea welcomes about 80 kids to a summer camp organized by the YMCA of Auburn-Lewiston on a recent weekday morning, his voice bellowing through the trees.
Each day, the campers scatter across 93 acres of woods and fields, with enough space for all of the classic summer camp activities, from archery to swimming.
Shea says it’s a valuable experience for a lot of kids — a way to get them outdoors and socializing with new friends, something especially important after years of remote and hybrid schooling.
But even as he looks out at dozens of smiling faces, Shea says this summer’s camp can sometimes feel empty.
“It’s almost like, half the numbers you want to see in front of you, as you give announcements. So it’s a little discouraging and disappointing,” he says. “But I guess it is what it is, and you do the best you can with what you’ve got.”
The YMCA of Auburn-Lewiston anticipated around 120 kids this summer. But Shea says the organization wound up limiting capacity to about 80 campers.
That’s because summer camps across the state are dealing with a shortage of counselors, as a tight labor market leads many young people to other jobs, reducing the scant quantity of child care for parents across the state.
“Child care, and camp, it’s not an easy job, right? You’re taking care of children all day long, and all of their needs,” says Meagan Hamblett, the executive director of the YMCA Alliance of Northern New England.
Hamblett says many young people are opting for other jobs that may pay $15 or $20 an hour elsewhere.’
“If you can go and you can get a job at a Hannaford, or a local landscaper, and get paid the same amount of money, we’re seeing people going and doing those things, rather than coming to the traditional child care and summer camp,” she says.
Camps say they also rely on teachers to serve as counselors during their time off in the summer. But this year, fewer are signing up, burnt out from years of hybrid and remote learning.
Add it up, and the shortage of workers has forced several day camps — from YMCAs to nonprofits and local recreation departments — to cut back on capacity or cancel programs altogether, in some cases leading to long waitlists. Hamblett says it’s a concern at a time when affordable child care is already difficult to find in many parts of the state.
“Back in the day when one parent worked and the other parent was at home, summer camp was kind of a luxury, right? You sent your child for a couple of weeks, or a specialty camp here or there,” she says. “Most of the families in our YMCA camp programs are sending their children for the whole summer. Because it is their child care.”
The situation has left parents scrambling for alternatives. In Ellsworth, parent Rita Boutaugh found herself caught off-guard earlier this year, when her daughter’s day camp was cancelled because it was unable to find enough counselors.
“It was a sickening feeling, knowing that my child wasn’t going to have child care for the next few months, for summer,” she says.
Boutaugh tried holding a sign outside the local grocery store, advertising for the open camp counselor positions. But it didn’t work.
She managed to find a couple other camps for her daughter to attend for a few weeks, and her parents have frequently helped out, too. But on many days, Boutaugh works overnight shifts at the local Shaw’s grocery store so she can care for her daughter.
“Like tonight, I’ll have to go in and work overnight,” she says. “But tomorrow, we’ll spend the day together. So we’re all just compromising, and just trying to make the best of it.”
Summer camps haven’t found any easy solutions, either. Many said they’ve increased pay substantially, but that hasn’t led to many more applications.
Ron Hall, the executive director of the nonprofit Maine Summer Camps, says overnight camps have managed to make up for the shortage by bringing in foreign workers on J-1 visas to fill positions. But he said few day camps have pursued that strategy.
At the YMCA day camp in Auburn, Shea says that he had just spoken with a grandmother who was hoping for her grandchildren to attend the camp. But he says he had to turn her down, which is difficult when so few other child care options exist.
“So it’s a little frustrating. The grandmother I talked to this morning understood,” Shea says. “The kids that we have out here, they’re loving it. They’re having a great time at camp. I just wish more could take advantage of it.”
With the labor market still tight, some camps say they’re planning to start recruiting next summer’s counselors far earlier, in hopes that the additional time will help them find enough staff by the start of camp next year.