As a summer camp director, Jem Sollinger’s biggest concern is always safety: that of his 500 boys and girls from 2nd through 10th grade, and 300 staff members from around the world.
That usually means preventing accidents, patrolling the waterfront, and stifling colds and impetigo.
This year it meant confronting a global pandemic. And addressing scenarios, questions and fears he’d never considered in his lifelong association with Camp Laurel.
Sollinger — a 1988 Staples High School graduate and varsity soccer player at Union College — was a Laurel camper himself.
Now he and his wife Debbie run the Maine camp. It has a strong local presence. A few dozen Westport and Weston youngsters attend Laurel each year. The office in Brooks Corner has a staff of 6.
Jem and Debbie Sollinger
Sollinger is a staunch believer in the power of summer camp. It’s a place where “kids can be kids. They develop independence, try new things, take safe risks, learn to succeed, and build a sense of self.”
With its balance of athletics, arts, activities and travel opportunities, Laurel — and many other camps like it — offer young people a chance to grow, and a respite from the academic and social pressures they face the other 10 months of the year.
As idyllic as it is for campers, it’s a whirlwind for a director. After spending the off-season meeting new families, hiring staff, developing programs and dealing with issues like insurance and regulations, Sollinger and his staff spend 7 weeks entrusted with the care and safety of hundreds of campers (and young counselors).
“Even on the most wonderful, sunny summer day, there’s incredible pressure,” Sollinger says. “We plan as much as we can, all year long, for every kind of emergency and contingency. Our biggest concern is the physical and emotional safety of everyone at camp. Until we get every last kid on the bus, and home to their parents, everything else is secondary to that.”
On Thursday, March 12 — the day after Westport schools closed — Sollinger looked out his Brooks Corner window. The parking lot was empty. Main Street was abandoned. Still, he admits, he did not yet grasp the magnitude of the coronavirus crisis.
But as the rest of America shut down too — including Broadway, the NCAA basketball tournament and more — he realized there might be an impact on camp.
Sollinger’s brother and father-in-law are both pediatricians. They’re “non-alarmists,” the director says. But both told him: “This is serious.”
New York governor Andrew Cuomo said, “density is not our friend.” Summer camp, Sollinger knows, epitomizes communal living.
Safety is always a high priority. But camp, by nature, brings people close together.
As he spoke with his leadership team, directors of other camps, and officials with the American Camping Association, Sollinger understood how much was unknown about COVID-19.
And he wondered what those unknowns meant for this coming summer.
The CDC, ACA and state of Maine all had different interpretations of social distancing. But how could that happen at camp?
One suggestion was keeping campers in separate “pods,” with no intermingling. But Laurel thrives on all-camp traditions like campfires, theater productions and barbecues.
Campers from one bunk mix with others at electives. They take out-of-camp trips, and have sports competitions with other camps. Staff leave camp on days off; parents, grandparents and siblings arrive on Visiting Day.
Electives are an important part of a camp like Laurel.
There were perils all around.
“Kids can be less impacted than adults,” Sollinger says. “But what if there was an outbreak? We’d have to quarantine, with everyone having separate bathrooms. If we had to evacuate, how could we do that?”
He even considered his own social distancing. “I high-five kids when they come off the bus. I give hugs and fist bumps. We wouldn’t even be able to do that.”
Like many camp directors, Jem Sollinger is a hugger.
There were intangible issues too.
“We’ve developed wonderful relationships with families. It’s all built on trust,” the director notes.
“If we opened, they’d trust us. They’d say, ‘It’s okay. Laurel’s got it.’ But we didn’t have it. They would follow us, but I wasn’t sure where we were going.”
Sollinger and his team explored a variety of options, including a delayed opening, shortened season and “bubbles,” all accompanied by efficient, accurate testing. Nothing seemed realistic.
As spring wore on, “quarantine fever” kicked in across the country. “Everyone loves camp, wherever they and their kids go to camp,” Sollinger says. “As more and more programs and things got canceled, camp became the one thing everyone hung on to. Everyone wanted camp to continue.”
But, he adds, “wanting, hoping and needing is not a strategic plan. Camp needs to be safe.”
Camp Laurel is in rural Maine. But it’s not isolated from the real world.
On May 18, Sollinger and his wife sent an email to Laurel families. It began:
The decision whether to operate Camp Laurel this summer has been driven by finding a clear and realistic path to safety for our entire camp community. With the many unknowns related to COVID-19 and the operational restrictions established by the American Camp Association, we are unable to find this safe path.
With great sadness, we have decided to cancel the 2020 season.
We value tremendously the trust you have placed in us and our decision was dictated by a deep sense of responsibility. It’s the most difficult decision we’ve had to make as camp directors, and the idea of upsetting our camp family has been heart-wrenching.
The Sollingers gave families the option of rolling over their payment to 2021, or a full refund.
The reaction was very supportive. Sollinger calls it “a combination of disappointment, understanding, and compassion for Debbie and me.”
It’s been a strange spring for everyone. But the months ahead will feel especially strange to Sollinger. In his long camping career, he has never been in Westport in June.
He won’t be here long. Soon he, Debbie and their 3 daughters head north. They’ll spend the summer at Camp Laurel in Maine, with their leadership team.
Jem and Debbie Sollinger, and their daughters.
There’s a facility to take care of. There are social media photos and posts to send to families.
And a summer camp season — next year’s — to look forward to.
“We’ll weather the storm,” Sollinger promises. “And we’ll come back, stronger than ever.”