For most American children, summer marks a reprieve from books and tests. However, for many working parents, it epitomizes the widespread shortage of affordable childcare.
The New York Times reported that in 2014, the average American family allotted an average of $958 for summer childcare expenses and parents who cannot afford childcare services are often forced to leave their younger children to tend to themselves. According to the report, 11 percent of 6- to 12-year-olds spent an average of ten hours a week on their own that year.
However, safety risks and loneliness are not the only challenges children face. Children in lower-income families who lack affordable care lose more than two months of math and reading skills every summer, precipitating an achievement gap that persists throughout the rest of their lives.
Many local governments recognize the importance of providing children with safe summer activities that support their personal and academic growth. Unfortunately, funds are limited. Erik Peterson, vice president of policy at the Afterschool Alliance, explained to the New York Times that the limited funding for low-income summer learning programs that does exist, comes from federal, state, and private grants but must be stretched to cover after-school programs as well. In addition, there tend to be too few spots available and a lack of transportation, making these programs inaccessible to many children.
What are parents to do? They may have more options than they think. Summer education advocate KJ Dell’Antonia told NPR that there are a lot of local, private, and donor-funded programs designed to help families send their kids to day schools and summer camps at little to no cost—if only parents knew they were there.
Here are just a few examples of the types of summer camps available for low-income communities across the United States.
Castle Rock, CO
Avid4 Adventure is a Boulder-based organization that offers up to 300 scholarships every year to low-income students so that they can attend summer camp. Castle Rock caters to children in preschool through seventh grade, providing four different types of camp experiences. Kids in the “adventure camp,” for instance, spend their days mountain biking, hiking, canoeing, and kayaking, while those enrolled in an older mentorship program nurture their teamwork and leadership skills.
River Junction, MI, and Eloy, AZ
Youth Haven offers a unique program that lets parents of disadvantaged children send their kids to sleepaway camp for the week at no cost. Children are put into teams of five to seven campers, and they will do most activities together, such as swimming, wall-climbing, archery, traveling in covered wagons, and more. Each scholarship covers all food and comfortable dorms with bunk beds. Note that Youth Haven offers additional children’s programs, including weekend camps and a special teen program.
YMCA programs across the country frequently offer free or partially-subsidized day and overnight summer camps to low-income children. Camp Soles is an example of the latter, although the program also offers weeklong and weekend programs for the whole family.
Trained and certified counselors lead teams of five to six children as they learn to zipline, fish, rock climb, canoe, and more. Each week features a new theme, such as pirates, wizards, and superheroes; other group activities such as campfires, carnivals, and beach parties are common too. All children enjoy three full meals per day, plus an evening snack.
Victor Junction offers more than just a free summer camp: it provides a safe place for sick and disabled children to get in touch with their adventurous side. Founded in honor of NASCAR legend Adam Petty, Victory Junction features a medically-safe water park, adventure course, day spa, and archery field. The camp is also equipped with a full staff of attentive counselors trained to assist children with a wide range of health and developmental challenges, from cancer and immunological disorders to spinal bifida and diabetes. Some of the camp experiences are funded through the Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund, which sends more than 500 kids in need to 33 camps throughout the region each year.
Camp Fire in central Puget Sound offers a diversity of summer camp experiences at eight different locations throughout the Seattle area, including both day and overnight programs. A few examples include Carkeet Park where kids will explore 220 acres of forests, meadows, and beach right on the Puget Sound and Blyth Park where kids spend their days along the Sammamish River. Camp Sealth also offers both themed day and overnight camp options featuring traditional camp activities, like hiking, swimming, and fishing. Camp Fire works to ensure all kids can attend camp regardless of financial need: fees are based on the Seattle Public Schools Free and Reduced Lunch sliding scale.
Camp Kumbayah is an excellent example of a community-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to giving children of all means a summer worth remembering. Families can apply for free or reduced attendance, based on a sliding scale. All campers are put into small groups led by at least two qualified counselors and activities range from sports activities, like archery, rope climbing, swimming, and canoeing, to more passive ones, like arts and crafts and storytime in a large central tree house. Fees include lunch prepared over an open campfire. Note that Camp Kumbayah offers special leadership and adventure programming for older students.
The West End House is part of the Boys and Girls Club and offers year-round programming for low-income children for just $15 a year, which includes a full summer of day camps at no extra charge. Member students receive academic enrichment, go on field trips, participate in theater programs and explore their communities. The West End House also offers additional career development support and employment opportunities for teens.
Just outside of the Cincinnati area, Camp Joy is a residential day camp created especially for children who otherwise could not afford to attend. Instead of sitting home alone, campers spend their summers scaling rope courses, swimming, making arts and crafts, and enjoying campfires. Camp Joy also offers an adventure-based leadership program for children ages 13 to 15 and two weekly police camps for children age ten and older. The final weekly session each summer is reserved for foster children.
Horizons National is a free summer enrichment program for low-income, public school students that operates on school and college campuses across 18 states. The curriculum has an academic component that emphasizes literacy and STEM programming, but students can also make art, go on field trips, and learn how to swim. Breakfast and lunch are provided at no cost. Horizons also offers after-school and weekend programs throughout the rest of the year.
Youth programming through the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) differs from all other programs featured on this list in one fundamental way: students are paid to attend. The programs are designed to be youth employment and internship programs to inspire young adults and teenagers to excel professionally. Specific programs include “Learn & Earn,” which focuses on career exploration, and STEM camp, which focuses on science, technology, engineering, and math enrichment. Both of these programs offer a $600 stipend for participation. Additionally, students ages 14 to 18 can earn $8.25 an hour, up to 15 hours a week, serving as Safe Summer Piece Ambassadors who engage younger children in positive community activities.
Many communities across the country offer day and overnight summer camps for families in need. Parents and caretakers can search the web or call local schools to find more options; however, there are several national organizations known for their regular programming. These include the YMCA, the Salvation Army, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and the United Way. Contact your local chapter of one of these organizations to learn more.