For those of you who have not yet heard, we cancelled summer camp 2020. For the first time in 25 years, we didn’t have any kids at the camp during June and July. Just writing this breaks my heart all over again. These are unprecedented times, though, and while I am saddened at the loss of camp this year, I am certain that we made the right decision.
I know that opinions on the seriousness of this pandemic have been divided – a Florida Elk actually accused me of being a coward – but we have a duty to the children of Florida to provide a physically and mentally safe environment anytime they come to our property. This fact remains, regardless of a family’s willingness to take the risk. And the truth is, despite all of our preparations, we could not unequivocally ensure that. There were, and still are, simply too many unknowns.
So, as early as March, we were preparing for just this type of worst-case scenario. We built the basis for a virtual summer camp program where our counselors and counselors-in-training would reach out to their “cabin” of kids via streaming video services, email and social media. It was a good plan. Unfortunately, we were not able to get the required number of children to sign up for virtual camp and were only able to support a single trial week. This single week, however, taught us a lot about running a camp of this style, and the positive reviews of the kids and parents who participated validated its potential efficacy. Obviously, virtual camp can never replace the in-person experience of camp at camp, but it may provide the means to supplement our normal program.
One of my priorities over the last few years has been to find the means to allow our amazing summer camp counselors to continue to mentor their campers throughout the school year. However, to do this, two major hurdles must be overcome. The first is distance. How can we transport counselors all across the state to meet with their campers from the summer? The second is accountability. If we provide mentors – paid or volunteer – to work with children, how do we ensure that every interaction is 100% in line with our rules and standards?
It turns out that the online platforms which allow our staff to interact with kids for virtual camp tackle both issues. Creating an online setting removes the need for counselors to physically travel, allowing them to connect with a camper anywhere in the state from their college dorm. Also, the services that provide the video/audio streaming provide incredible accountability! First, administrators from the camp can log in and observe directly at any time. Second, the software digitally records both video and audio for every session, so there’s always an unbiased record of the interaction. What more could we ask for? So, while this summer may have been a loss in that we were not able to bring kids to camp, I feel that we have made great strides in expanding our year-round outreach to Florida’s youth.
I’d like to thank FEYC’s Jen Scott, Elliott Gilbert and Krys Ragland for all of their efforts in preparing for any eventuality of this summer. They never backed down from any challenge I threw their way. I’d also like to take a minute to thank several people outside of FEYC who worked to make our abbreviated virtual camp possible and who have been instrumental for me in maintaining whatever sanity I had prior to 2020. First, Carl Seibert has been an inspiration through his mentorship, his patience and his support as we went into completely uncharted waters for FEYC. Second, Dan Masi worked his backside off rounding up potential vendors, donors and other collaborators to help us get organized for a virtual camp. His efforts and support kept us motivated throughout. And last, but definitely not least, Laz Suarez once again pulled off miracles in maintaining same-day changes to our website (while being swamped with hundreds of other tasks already on his plate) and in helping us manage our message to families via social media. Thank you, all!
As I wrap this up, I’d like to update you on some of the major maintenance and construction projects we’ve been working on. Phase II of the Smith Conference Center kitchen has been completed and is now ready for use. It’s been a major undertaking, but it is now ready to push out 600+ meals a day as we bring in corporate retreats for extended stays at the camp. With it, we also completed a connecting patio between the Smith Center and the Bates Aquatic Center. Although we didn’t realize it at the time, this new patio may be essential to much of how we do business moving forward. It provides outdoor seating and even cooking for groups who may not wish to dine indoors due to coronavirus concerns. Additionally, we have completed the renovation of the first seven cabins in the Oaks cabin area. These 25-year-old cabins were stripped down to the original slab, concrete walls and trusses. They then received a much needed overhaul that includes a larger, more ADA-friendly restroom, permanent dehumidifiers, updated HVAC systems, new electrical panels and new floors. These 21 cabins have served our campers well for over two decades, but it was definitely time for an update.
It’s been a crazy year so far, and while we don’t know what the rest of this year holds for us, I remain hopeful that we will find a light at the end of the tunnel, and I can’t wait to have you and our kids back to camp.