Summer camps feel loss of Libra money

Camp Director Josh LaPrell talks with members of his staff during the last day of staff training at the Auburn-Lewiston YMCA's Camp Connor in Poland on Friday. Children will arrive Monday for the first five-day session.
Daryn Slover/Sun Journal
Camp Director Josh LaPrell talks with members of his staff during the last day of staff training at the Auburn-Lewiston YMCA's Camp Connor in Poland on Friday. Children will arrive Monday for the first five-day session.
Posted June 18, 2011, at 5:04 a.m.
Last modified June 18, 2011, at 11:27 a.m.

LEWISTON, Maine — Fewer Lewiston kids will be spending this summer at camps — learning how to swim, hurling a baseball or singing a silly camp song.

The reason is money.

For the first time in a dozen years, local camps are managing without the Libra Foundation’s “The Opportunity to Shine” TOPS program. That program gave Lewiston elementary school students vouchers worth hundreds of dollars each to attend a camp. At its height — when Lewiston kids in grades three through six got $1,000 each summer — area camps bustled.

No more.

The Auburn-Lewiston YMCA has seen numbers fall twice as far as they predicted. The Lewiston Recreation Department has seen registration decline by half. And attendance at the summer camps at Central Maine Community College has fallen so far that they plan to open a week late because Monday’s original start had too few kids.

“Between the TOPS program and the economy gone, we’re feeling it,” Dave Gonyea, director of the CMCC program, said.

Knowing that the Libra money was drying up, Gonyea stopped hiring buses to transport kids; he reduced the number of counselors and narrowed the offerings at the camp.

Extravagant camps such as Harry Potter camp, which tried to immerse kids in the world of author J.K. Rowling, and cruise camp, which took kids to Maine amusement parks, are gone.

The focus has been narrowed to sports, and even those have been having trouble.

One baseball camp planned for Monday had only two kids enrolled, Gonyea said. On Thursday, he called their parents to tell them the bad news.

“Those were tough calls,” he said.

Libra’s TOPS program began in Lewiston and quickly expanded to Portland and Bangor. There were no income requirements, no needs test. For 11 years, kids who had never attended camps got to go.

It wasn’t permanent, though.

In recent years, the vouchers were smaller, $500 each. Statewide, the Libra Foundation ended the program this year, saying it wanted to look at other endeavors.

In its first 10 years, more than 33,000 children attended camps on the foundation’s scholarships, including more than 11,200 from Lewiston.

Brian DuBois, the director of the Auburn-Lewiston YMCA, praised the foundation’s years of generosity.

“We knew from the get-go that it’s not a forever program,” he said. For now, his concern is helping as many kids as possible.

“It’s changed dramatically,” DuBois said Friday. For the coming week, he had about 86 kids signed up to attend the Y’s Camp Connor in Poland. The norm in recent years was 150 kids. He had hoped for 125.

The numbers will increase, he predicted. Close to 120 are signed up for some weeks.

But DuBois worried about the families who want to send their kids to camp but lack the money. They’ve been calling.

“Our phone has been ringing off the hook,” he said. Meanwhile, he has been soliciting donations from local businesses and individuals for help. He encouraged people to call with aid. People who need help sending a kid to camp should also call. Partial scholarships are available, he said.

The situation was similar at the Lewiston Recreation Department. Its day camp at the Lewiston Armory is shooting for 40 kids in a program that typically has around 70, Lewiston Recreation Director Maggie Chisholm said. She is looking for help and is encouraging people looking for a camp to call her.

“At the very least, we can add their names to a waiting list, in case help comes in,” she said.

At Central Maine Community College, Gonyea said he believes his camp will never be the hub of summer activity it once was. At its height in 2002 or 2003, as many as 600 kids would attend camps there, often coming for several weeks each. He will miss the children heading off to the beach, watching a movie on a rainy day or crowding the cafeteria.

But he hopes they will recall the time they spent there at the school, even getting a taste of what it’s like to be on a college campus.

Maybe they’ll remember CMCC when they are nearing high school graduation, he said.

“This is not our business,” Gonyea said of his summer camps. “We’re a college.”

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