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Advocates work to save Virginia’s overnight camps

youth gather around fire
(Photo: Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp & Retreat Center)

Like many small businesses across the state, overnight camps are experiencing economic hardships during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, nearly 20 camps have formed a coalition to raise awareness on the issue in an effort to keep the industry afloat. 

Allison Ryals is with the Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp & Retreat Center in Fort Valley — she’s also a clinical social worker and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Social Work. Ryals said summer camps give youth the opportunity to grow, be more independent, and escape the pressures of everyday life. She added that they help nurture the mental health of youth who attend them. 

“When this COVID crisis recedes, our youth and families are going to need these spaces and these experiences more than ever before,” Ryals said. “An entire generation of youth K-12 are going to need to disconnect in this recovery from an intense amount of screentime that’s been necessary in providing that virtual learning experience.”

Camps mostly operate during the summer months, but to reduce the spread of COVID-19, they’ve been banned from opening. 

Ann Warner is owner and director of Camp Mont Shenandoah, an all girls program in Bath County. She said while they've gotten some funding from federal small business grants, it’s still not enough.

“Summer camps are generally perceived as a luxury item, and when the economy is tight, we could be one of the first things on the chopping block,” Warner said. 

Warner added that establishments that have gotten federal assistance aren’t eligible for the state’s Rebuild Virginia program — which could bring them an extra $10,000 dollars. 

She said they’ve been working on ways to make the all girls program more accessible and inclusive. But COVID-19 has put those efforts on hold. 

“One thing we were on-track for doing this year is diversifying our camp and bringing in more girls of color from different backgrounds,” Warner said. “With the shortfall in income, that’s going to restrict what we can do in that department because it was going to come through scholarships and such.”

Advocates said they’re looking to Congress for solutions to the industry’s funding concerns, but so far, no extra assistance has been allocated to them in federal coronavirus relief packages. 

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