The Schenectady YMCA’s summer camps are filled.
But for a while, the camp staff wasn’t sure they would be able to fill those slots. Sign-ups were much slower than usual; there were concerns that people would have to be laid off if enrollment goals weren’t met.
“The sign-ups were very late,” said Lou Magliocca, executive director of the Schenectady YMCA. “People did not want to fork over the money in advance.” But now “we’ve sold out every week.”
Fewer children have signed up for afterschool programs and summer camps this year, the result, many say, of a recession that has pushed the unemployment rate to its highest rate — 9.5 percent — in 26 years.
“We’ve got families losing jobs, and because they aren’t employed they don’t need afterschool programs,” said Lynn Siebert, School-age Education Coordinator for the Capital District Child Care Council. “Or the family is employed, but because of the economy and other rising costs, they’ve decided that it’s OK for a fifth grader to go home for a few hours or to rely on neighbors.
“That’s a long time for idle hands,” Siebert said.
Siebert is the local ambassador for the Afterschool Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for affordable afterschool programs. In the summer, many of these children attend camp programs.
In a recent survey, the Afterschool Alliance found that afterschool program leaders throughout New York are being forced to increase fees and reduce staffing, activities and hours to cope with budget cuts and rising costs. Eighty-five percent of respondents said that children in their communities need afterschool care but are unable to access it. Six out of 10 New York programs reported a loss of funding because of the recession, and nearly all respondents expected the recession to impact their budget for the upcoming school year.
Seventy-one percent of the respondents also offer summer programs, and 40 percent said they expected enrollment to be higher this summer. But one in 10 said they might not be able to offer a summer program at all because of budget problems, and 42 percent said they would need to at least double capacity to serve all of the kids in their community who need afterschool programs.
More than 75 percent of students who attend afterschool programs in New York qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to the survey.
Siebert said that more families are turning to the Department of Social Services for assistance — the agency provides subsidies for low-income children to attend afterschool and camp programs — but that funding from the state and federal governments has remained flat, and aid is shrinking as a result.
“Fewer programs are getting fewer dollars,” she said. “The pots of money are smaller and more competitive. All of the pots of money are shrinking, but the need is not.”
As a result, programs are seeking assistance from private foundations and raising fees.
“It’s difficult to get parents to pay for something that’s historically been free,” Siebert said.
Advocates for afterschool programs and summer camps say they keep children out of trouble by providing them with a safe, structured environment.
“This country is still operating under the misconception that afterschool programs are not essential,” said Lucy Friedman, president of The After-School Corporation in New York City. “But for parents who can’t leave work at 3 p.m., and who are spending all their income on food and shelter, afterschool is absolutely essential. These programs are the only thing standing between thousands of New York kids and the street.”
One local camp is offering discounts in an effort to attract more campers.
The Arts Center of the Capital Region, in Troy, is offering members a 25 percent discount for its July camps; the offer expires on July 10. Scholarships are also available.
Amy Williams, president of The Arts Center of the Capital Region, said summer camp enrollment is down 10 percent to 20 percent. She said the August numbers are better than the July numbers.
“July is typically a month with a lot of options,” Williams said. “That, coupled with the economy and people making the decision to choose less-expensive camps, is making our numbers look a little soft.”
The Arts Center’s camps typically draw between 12 and 18 kids for each program. The August camps have already hit the 12-camper threshold but the July camps have not, and two of the July teen camps have been canceled because of low enrollment. But Williams said she has no plans to cancel any other camps. “I’m really committed to it,” she said. “Parents depend on it.”
The Schenectady YMCA runs two summer camps at the Turchi Center on Balltown Road that cost $155 a week for members and $175 for non-members, although many children attend on scholarship or with the aid of DSS subsidies. All told, there are about 150 camper slots per week. In addition, the YMCA runs free, daily summer programs at Jerry Burrell Park.
Magliocca said one of the YMCA’s goals is to increase the number of children who attend the free summer programs at Jerry Burrell Park.
The Schenectady JCC runs two summer camp programs: a day camp for younger children and a travel camp for sixth, seventh and eighth graders. Assistant camp director Rachel Kutil said regular camp enrollment is flat, but travel camp enrollment has increased. There are 50 slots for travel campers and more than 200 for day campers.
The one change, Kutil said, is that some children are attending camp for part of the summer — four or five weeks — rather than the full eight weeks.