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  • With donations down, special-needs camps battle recession

    Jordan Melnick is a grad school scholar, a phenomenal writer/journalist and…my sisters’ fiancé (And might I add what a fine young chap he is!). He recently wrote an article that we both felt needed to be shared, about the economies effect on funding for special-needs camps. Many camps are getting hit twice by cutbacks in corporate support and then again by subsidizing camper admission fees, because families just don’t have money right now. Read more and together let’s figure out what we can do to help: The recession has hurt all summer camps this year, but special-needs camps—those serving children with cancer, diabetes and other diseases—are especially feeling the pinch.

    Perhaps the biggest hit has come from corporations, whose donations typically anchor these camps’ budgets. But this year many companies have shrunk their contributions or eliminated them entirely as hard times have constrained corporate generosity. Chicago-based Children’s Oncology Services Inc., which runs the One Step At A Time camp for cancer and leukemia patients on Lake Geneva, in Williams Bay, Wis., has seen a 20 percent to 25 percent reduction in all donations, according to Executive Director Jacob Drescher. Children’s Oncology Services drew on its cash reserves to make up for this year’s losses and, whenever possible, cut costs by limiting off-site travel, for instance. “You just have to be creative with what you have and make it stretch a little more,” Drescher said. One Step At A Time is not the only special-needs camp suffering.

    The American Diabetes Association said that nationwide grants have “been smaller than in the past in many instances.” In Northern Illinois, for example, Diabetes Association camps have seen a 10 percent decline in corporate backing, according to Program Director Suzanne Apsey. “There have been some other challenging years, but I think this is one of the worst,” Apsey said. The drop in donations is a nationwide trend. In April, Bearskin Meadow Camp, a 71-year-old diabetes retreat in California’s Sequoia National Forest, launched an emergency fundraising campaign after its biggest backers—Chevron Corp. and Abbott Diabetes Care among them—cut more than $100,000 in contributions. “That’s huge,” said Paula Gogin, development director of the Diabetes Youth Foundation, which runs Bearskin. Facing what Gogin called an unprecedented “economic crisis,” Bearskin managed to raise $80,000.

    The largesse meant the camp, one of the biggest for diabetes in the country, would have to eliminate only one of its ten sessions – a best-case outcome that still left many campers on the outside looking in. “We had over 50 kids who wanted to go to camp this year who couldn’t go,” said Mats Wallin, the foundation's executive director. Besides corporate cutbacks, these camps are also dealing with a marked increase in the number of campers asking for financial aid, or “camperships.” It is common for special-needs camps to subsidize campers who cannot afford attendance fees.

    Many have a pay-what-you-can, no-questions-asked policy. At Camp Sealth in Vashon, Wash., a Diabetes Assocation operation, 52 percent of campers requested scholarships, up from 20 percent last summer. “I have families that have been sending their kids for years and have never had to ask for financial aid before,” said Alyssa Olsen, Camp Sealth’s associate manager. “The most common explanation is, ‘We don’t have a job.’” Olsen set aside $25,000 for “camperships” and, she said, “I’m pretty much going to be spending every penny. I can’t remember the last time that’s happened.” At Hudson, Ill.-based Camp Warren Jyrch, which serves children with bleeding disorders, only 12 out of 82 campers could pay the full $250 suggested camp fee.

    One-third paid nothing and the rest paid what they could, said Lily Schwartz, associate director of the Hemophilia Foundation of Ill., which sponsors the camp. The camp also raised less money for “camperships” than in past years. “We’re scrambling,” Schwartz said. “In general, our fundraising has been down all across the board. We’re truly watching our expenses.” The recession has had at least one positive consequence for special-needs camps: an uptick in volunteerism due, according to Drescher, to so many people being out of work. “We’re getting calls all the time saying, ‘I’m in between jobs, I’ve got some time on my hands, can you use some assistance?’” he said. At the Diabetes Association’s Northern Illinois camps, a record number of applicants—10 percent higher than last year—have offered their time gratis. Still, the hardships of the economic downturn far outweigh one incidental boon, especially for camps where attendance fees don’t come close to covering the actual cost of hosting a camper.

    At Bearskin a teen camper might pay up to $995 for a ten-day session, while the real bill—covering medical staff, including endocrinologists, dieticians and nurses, and medical supplies far pricier than the contents of a first-aid kit—comes to $3,100 per camper. This fee-cost gap exists at almost every special-needs camp, large or small.

    Of course, running cash-negative retreats with insurance liabilities that would make a school principal faint has never been easy, and camp operators across the country remain committed to giving sick children a memorable summer. “This organization was not about to say we can’t do it,” said Rabbi Shlomo Crandall, Midwest director for Chai Lifeline, which operates a camp for 400 cancer patients in Glen Spey, New York. “We have too many children who rely on us,” he said.