Variety Village Welcomes Happy Campers
By Karen Stintz
President & CEO Variety
The little camper squealed “112 days”, hopped out of her mother’s car and ran into Variety Village.
One hundred and twelve days is the length of time Variety Village has been closed to our community. If there was ever a time I doubted the value Variety brings to the community, it evaporated in that moment.
Using protocols provided by the Government, we opened up our facility to campers this week. We screen, we distance, we wear personal protective equipment, we sanitize and most of all – we have fun.
This week is the first week of camp for over 60 kids and the first time for many of them to be playing with other kids.
It is incredible to witness and to hear the chatter of children in the building. It is a wonderful reminder for why we exist.
Some kids ran into the building while others were more tentative. One little girl cried as she was saying goodbye to her parents for the day because it was the first time in four months that she had been away from them. But every camper returned the next day.
Variety has always been incredible at delivering camps to kids of all ages and abilities. Before the pandemic, we were one of the few places where families could bring their kids if one child had a disability and the other child was more typically developing and they could play together. About half of our campers have a disability, either physical or intellectual, which means our staff are well trained on how to be nimble and accommodating. During this pandemic, our staff quickly learned how to greet and engage kids who have gone through an experience that none of us have ever gone through at their age – being isolated from their friends for months on end.
Since the building is so large, we are able to ensure camper groups don’t intermix. When camper cohorts move to new activity stations, they walk in a large circle that sometimes takes them out of the building and into a new area of the building. There is a regular and frequent sanitization schedule that includes paid staff and volunteers. There is a schedule for when each cohort accesses parts of the facility and lunch times are staggered.
The kids can run, jump, and swim. There is no singing but lots of dancing to music that is played over the speaker system.
And there is constant chatter.
Our camp staff are glad to be back after a long period of uncertainty about their summer jobs. Parents are happy that their children have a safe place to play and be with other kids, not to mention the relief at finally having a break from working and child minding.
Our limited experience reflects the observations that were published by Sick Kids https://www.sickkids.ca/PDFs/About-SickKids/81407-COVID19-Recommendations-for-School-Reopening-SickKids.pdf that kids benefit when they have structured play and interaction. We heard from many parents about the challenges of social isolation for kids that have limited options to begin with, combined with the varying ability of kids to participate in online instruction.
Although we have had parents who had prepaid for camp ask for refunds because of their continued concern over the spread of the virus, we have also had families who registered for one week and have now extended to the full summer because of the positive impact a few days of camp has had on their child.
We have had some hiccups along the way. Some camp staff had their visors ripped by kids thinking it was a fun game. The restrictions on the numbers for a cohort limit the number of staff counselors to kids, making lunch breaks difficult to administer because back up staff cannot be called upon. We’ve asked that parents don’t come into the building to collect their kids and sometimes there is a bit of a wait while we bring the campers to the parent’s cars. All in all, the hiccups are minor and solvable. Everyone is patient while we work through the kinks and we are grateful.
In a “normal” year, we would have 200 campers each week and operate a number of other programs at the same time. Our new “normal” is a maximum of 125 campers and even as the City moves towards stage 3, we will continue to keep our focus on camps for the time being. The value that the camps bring to kids and families cannot be understated.
To hear the kids chatter and laugh is a tonic after the darkness of the past few months. While we knew our doors would reopen, the frustration of not being able to serve our community was ever present.
I am grateful to the community that continues to support us and grateful to the team that makes it possible for these kids to play. Brighter days are ahead of us.