BANGOR, Maine — The last group of local families to benefit from the Libra Foundation’s summer camp voucher program came to the Bangor Civic Center on Tuesday to browse among booths and displays set up by an estimated 70 summer camp owners and operators.
For some families, this summer might be the last for attending summer camps because funding for the vouchers that have been available to them for a decade won’t be there in the future.
The Libra Foundation’s campership program debuted in Lewiston in 1999 and was expanded to Bangor and Portland the next year.
More than 8,000 children enrolled in public schools have participated so far in overnight and day camps during the summer thanks to the more than $6 million the Libra Foundation has provided in Bangor alone.
In Bangor, the program is administered by the United Way of Eastern Maine.
Last year, the rocky economy forced the Portland-based foundation to scale back its charitable giving, including its annual allocations for the summer camp programs. As a result, the dollar value of Camp Bangor vouchers was cut from $1,000 to $500 per eligible child, and third-graders were eliminated from the program.
Then in January, the Libra Foundation announced that this would be the summer camp program’s final year.
Amy Corliss is among the Bangor parents who say that the vouchers made it possible to send her child to summer camp.
Because of the vouchers, her 11-year-old son, Brennen, has been able to attend a variety of programs, including those sponsored by Great Skates, Family Fun Lanes and Windover Art Center, and the Bangor Y’s Camp G. Peirce Webber.
“Those experiences are priceless, but as a parent I have to put a price on them,” she said Tuesday while perusing information from some of the programs represented at this year’s Camp Bangor Fair.
“We certainly won’t be able to afford it next year,” when the vouchers cease to exist, she said. “I’m just very disappointed, but unfortunately the cost is much too high.”
Despite the loss of Libra funding, Corliss said she appreciates what the Libra Foundation has given Bangor’s youth over the past decade.
“They deserve a big, giant thank-you,” she said. “I hope there’s some way it can continue.”
Summer camp directors who participated in Tuesday’s fair said it was still too early to determine exactly how the loss of the Libra funding will affect them.
Several, however, said they believe they will manage.
“We will miss it but we were going before the vouchers and we will be going after the vouchers,” said Tom Bickford, director of Maine Robotics, which offers day camp programs for 9- to 14-year-olds in several Maine communities, including Bangor, Orono, Auburn, Gorham and Portland.
Norman Thombs of Camp Mechuwana said that between 30 and 50 of the 700 to 800 campers who visit the traditional overnight summer camp in Winthrop each year are Libra Foundation campers from Bangor, Lewiston and Portland.
“So, yeah, there will be an impact, but I don’t think it will be major,” he said.
Thombs and several other seasoned summer camp directors speculated Tuesday that the hardest-hit summer camps likely would be day camps located closest to the three cities that have had voucher programs.
It wasn’t clear Tuesday whether the annual Bangor camp fair would go on after the vouchers dry up.
“We’ve had a lot of camps ask that same question,” United Way spokeswoman Emma Pope-Welch said Tuesday.
“The decision hasn’t been made but there is certainly an interest on our part in continuing the fair, and camp directors are interested,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to bring camps and [potential] campers together.”
A 2010 Camp Directory with information on more than 100 camp programs across Maine and other Camp Bangor program details will be available at www.unitedwayem.org by early March. In addition, copies of the directory will be distributed to eligible students through Bangor schools and the children’s department of the Bangor Public Library.