Tag Archives: summer camp

Looking Back On Laurel: Despite COVID, A “Celebratory” Camp Summer

It was a different summer this year at Camp Laurel.

There were no games against other camps. No overnight trips. Even Visiting Day was canceled.

Yet the summer of 2021 was joyful, wonderful, beautiful — everything camp should be.

Campers come from across the country to the Belgrade Lakes region of Maine. They enjoyed athletics, aquatics, arts and adventures. It’s been that way for 72 years — except last summer. That’s when COVID knocked the summer camp industry — along with much of the nation — for a sad, lonely loop.

Camp Laurel’s off-season headquarters are downtown, in Brooks Corner. Jem Sollinger and his wife Debbie are directors and partners.

Jem Sollinger (2nd from left) with Laurel campers and a staff member.

The other day, Jem — a 1988 Staples High School graduate — reflected on this summer, and last. He was still on a high from the success of this year.

It’s a far cry from 2020.

The decision not to open then was “challenging, but the right one,” Jem says.

He never second-guessed himself. The unknowns were too great at the time. Considering the downside versus the upside, it was a fairly easy call.

This year’s decision too was “not tough.”

He and his senior staff had not anticipated that, a year later, the world would still be dealing with COVID. But, he notes, “we had 15 months to educate ourselves, to learn and develop new systems to be safe.”

Those included 2 negative tests for campers before arrival, a negative test on Day 1, and another one 5 days later. All campers were masked, and in pods the first 6 days.

Once the masks came off, campers could hug.

“There was a desire for camp, by families and children. Even more, there was a need for it,” Jem says.

The need was for “kids to be kids. They’d had 15 months of being stagnant, restricted and masked. They needed to be active, interact with each other, be appropriately challenged — to get all the benefits of camp.”

Some of the new systems were easy to implement.

Others, such as dealing with 2 “senior classes” — this year’s oldest campers, and last year’s, who were invited back after missing a year — were harder. “They worked wonderfully together,” Jem says with relief.

There were also twice the amount of new campers this year. It was a challenge to integrate so many new faces into the camp culture — but also a chance to shape that culture positively.

And they’re off! Newcomers quickly acclimated into the Camp Laurel culture — which itself evolved this summer.

COVID also provided an opportunity to “tweak and evolve.” Traditions are great — and every camp has plenty of them — but the ability to pivot is important too.

With Visiting Day out, for example, each camper had a FaceTime session with parents and siblings.

Officials had to devise activities for staff, who usually use days off to “rest, refuel and have fun.” They were restricted this summer to camp.

Staff orientation was also lengthened from 8 to 12 days, to allow for quarantines.

Jem praised the “amazing team effort” of counselors and senior staff. “People had to step up — and they did. These are teachers, coaches, educators and artists — adults who had missed camp too. Laurel is part of their lives.”

But some college-age staff saw their friends leading less restrictive lives elsewhere. There was, Jem notes, “a bit of FOMO” (fear of missing out).

Some counselors expressed a need to prioritize their own mental health. “It’s like parenting, or Simone Biles,” he says. “Sometimes you do need to put yourself first. I understand that. Everyone is coming out of a strange time.”

After a sad summer in 2020, camp provided a welcome respite.

Camp Laurel had no COVID cases the entire summer. Jem attributes that to careful planning — and luck.

Despite — or perhaps because of — being tethered to home for 15 months, the director found there was less “home-missing” this year than usual.

Jem senses that more campers “pushed themselves, tried new things, and extended themselves to others.”

In addition, there was “more appreciation for the beauty of Maine, and just being there.”

He describes “a certain simplicity” to this summer. In the absence of trips and inter-camp competitions, everyone — adults and children alike — felt a “reinforcement of the power of the camp experience.”

Camp has been over for just a month. Already, Jem and his staff are deep in planning for 2022. There were no tours for prospective campers this summer — usually he greets 50 to 75 families — but he did 40 tours as soon as the season ended. He’ll do another 15 soon.

“Lots of questions remain,” he notes. “But next summer will happen. We’re looking forward to another celebratory year, with energy, enthusiasm and joy.”

Summer Camp: COVID Causes Closings

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.”