The Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department will hold 38 summer camps this year, including six for special-needs children. There also will be 16 camps run by outside contractors, such as the YWCA, that will be held through Park and Rec at their facilities.
Registration for summer camps began Feb. 1. Registration for camps run by outside contractors will begin in May.
Terri Stowers, Park and Rec manager for central Mecklenburg County, said registration for all county-run camps began earlier this year to help parents get their children a spot as soon as possible.
"The demand is always high because our costs are so competitive," said Stowers. "We also do background checks and give parents the security of knowing their child is in safe hands."
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As of Feb. 25, there are 3,718 spots available for traditional, teen and speciality camps. Stowers recommends parents who want to enroll children in a specialty camp do so soon.
"Those camps tend to fill the fastest," said Stowers. "Because they are so specialized and focus on one area, those camps are our most popular."
Park and Rec also provides six therapeutic camps for children with special needs. Past participants were able to register in February, and registration for new campers will open in March.
"Our therapeutic camps are extremely popular and spots go quickly," said Stowers. "We provide camps for special-needs children that are at a low cost to the parent. There aren't a lot of camps like that in Mecklenburg County."
The county summer camps strive to keep costs low, especially during tough economic times. Campers can get 50 hours a week of camp for $70.
"There are a lot of quality private camps out there that most people in Mecklenburg County can't afford," said Stowers. "We know it's harder for parents to pay more, so we have been looking for ways to keep costs low."
Stowers said the cost of camps has been consistent or reduced this year. One of the ways Park and Rec is keeping costs down is by keeping all camp activities in-house.
"We have a lot of great facilities within Park and Recreation," said Stowers. "Instead of taking the kids on an expensive field trip to a private facility, we take them to McDowell Nature Preserve and let them spend the day there."
Park and Rec also provides activities such as swimming lessons, which are included in the cost of the traditional camps for children ages 6-11.
The camps that are run by outside contractors usually cost the least, according to Joey Grahl, Park and Rec manager for south Mecklenburg County.
"The (outside contracted) camps usually cost very little or are free," said Grahl. "It's a great service the outside contractors are providing because they've stepped in where we have lost a camp."
In 2001, Park and Rec's budget was cut and many camps were closed. Outside contractors, such as the Progressive Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, have taken the lead on running camps at Park and Rec facilities.
"Progressive Church sends 200 kids to camp every summer," said Stowers. "They come into the neighborhood and have the camp at the Arbor Glen Rec Center."
This year, Park and Rec will be providing two new camp initiatives.
One of the highest priorities is the fitness and wellness initiative, according to Heidi Kitterman, Park and Rec manager for north Mecklenburg County.
"We had a coordinator who put fitness and wellness into the community, but the position was cut this year," said Kitterman. "We've made it our mission to put the program into the camps by providing healthier snacks and serving only water and juice."
The second initiative is "No Child Left Inside," where camps will be required to spend as much time outside as possible.
"Kids have forgotten how to just play," said Stowers. "As long as the ozone and temperature levels are safe, the kids will be outside."
Although a large amount of time will be spent outdoors, there will also be indoor activities when the weather is dangerous. Campers can participate in arts and crafts, listen to guest speakers and adapt some outdoor activities to take place inside. All activities will be centered on the weekly theme, such as photography or camping and fishing.
Stowers, Grahl and Kitterman agree it's Park and Rec's goal to reach children before they become at-risk. Stowers said summer camps provide an affordable, positive place for children to go while parents are at work.
"It's hard to tell a child to not join a gang but to just sit inside," said Stowers. "They need an alternative, and we provide that for them.
"We give them positive role models that can inspire them for the rest of their lives."