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Camps quieter this summer

SALEM, N.H. — It was quieter than usual at Camp Otter.

The 20-acre camp that normally hosts 250 campers a day during the summer had only 53 kids, Camp Director Ryan MacRae said as she led U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen on a tour of the facilities.

Areas like the archery pit were noticeably empty as campers spread out on benches to wait and take turns shooting.

Shaheen met with MacRae and other camp officials to talk about how to help summer camps. Shaheen knows summer camp in New Hampshire is vital. Often when people outside of the Granite State meet her, they share their experiences about camp in New Hampshire, she said.

"Summer camps need help — both day camps and overnight camps — if they are going to be able to continue to be in business," Shaheen said. "They are absolutely critical for having a place for our children that is safe and values that are going to be important to them their whole lives. It's clear this is also a very big industry in New Hampshire, we have to do everything we can to ensure they survive."

Summer camps, like Camp Otter, are facing increased expenses with severely decreased revenues because of health guidelines in place to allow camps to operate. There needs to be more cleaning and sanitizing equipment along with fewer children but the same number of staff, heads of various camp organizations told Shaheen.

"There's a growing realization in Washington that there has to be additional (financial) assistance..." Shaheen said. "We (Congress) have to provide help to schools, and childcare is part of putting that back if parents go back to work."

The $21 billion camp industry across the country has lost $16 billion because of the pandemic, explained Scott Brody, national board chairman of the American Camp Association. Brody owns two overnight camps that are currently closed this summer called Kenwood and Evergreen in Wilmont, New Hampshire. 

Camps, if closed, will likely be lost forever, Brody said.

"Developers are always looking for land like this," he added. 

Camp Otter, on the shore of Captain Pond is nestled in a very residential area. The camp was founded in 1957 President and CEO Frank Kenneally explained. It has served as an important nature getaway for kids living in the nearby Merrimack Valley cities and has helped the organization build strong community connections, he said.

Camp Otter is one of three camps owned by the Merrimack Valley YMCA. The other two are overnight camps, which were unable to open this year because of health restrictions, Kenneally said. This year the YMCA was also only able to have New Hampshire children attend the day camp because of quarantine rules.

"It's a challenge for us because we are a border Y," Kenneally said. "We serve Salem, but we have our Massachusetts operation as well. Those kids and families are missing out on the experience of summer camp."