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Recession impacts kids' summer plans

  • Story Highlights
  • The economy has some families looking for affordable ways to keep kids busy
  • Survey: About 49 percent of camps report lower enrollment this summer than in 2008
  • Interest has increased in low-cost options, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs
  • YMCA: More families applying for "camperships," donors respond favorably
By Debra Alban
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(CNN) -- Sheila Bernus Dowd's two children attended so many camps last summer that she used spreadsheets to keep track of their whereabouts.

Kiley and Caden Dowd, of San Jose, California, will spend more time at home and less at camp this summer.

Kiley and Caden Dowd, of San Jose, California, will spend more time at home and less at camp this summer.

This year is a different story.

Dowd's 9-year-old son Caden's only camp plans include a week at roller hockey camp for $100, which includes the cost of equipment. It's a far cry from 2008, when just one of his camps, involving video-game developing, had a $1,000 price tag.

"We can't afford to do that," said Dowd, a San Jose, California-based fundraising consultant for nonprofit agencies. "This year, we just thought it's been so crazy that we're going to throw that to the wind."

The Dowds are not alone in scaling back this summer. The recession has left many Americans scrambling to find affordable ways to keep their children occupied.

About 49 percent of camps that responded to a survey in April said they were experiencing lower enrollment this summer than in 2008, according to the American Camp Association. Meanwhile, 29 percent said they had higher enrollment, and nearly 21 percent said enrollment was about the same.

And among those attending the YMCA's 265 overnight camps and 2,000 day camps, some children are signing up for fewer weeks, said Gary Forster, camping specialist for the YMCA.

Marlon Barcelona, a seventh-grade teacher in Fullerton, California, is also cutting back on his two children's camp experiences this summer after learning he won't be pulling in an extra summer paycheck.

Barcelona's district in North Orange County canceled summer school. California's budget woes prompted education officials to cut summer school around the state, including elementary and middle schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The Los Angeles district's summer school cancellation alone is expected to affect more than 225,000 students while saving about $34 million. North Carolina has also seen widespread summer school cuts.

"Day camp is $60 a week per child. We originally registered them in April or May for three weeks, and now it's just going to be that last week [of summer]," Barcelona said. "We're going to try to take them to museums and try to take them to some of the local parks ... do our best to make sure they still have fun this summer and get to see things instead of just staying home."

Demand high for free, low-cost options

Programs that cater to low-income families have seen more interest this year and may have to turn children away.

The Fresh Air Fund sends poor New York City children to stay for free at camps or with volunteer host families in suburbs or small towns. The organization has seen a significant increase in the number of children signing up early, said Executive Director Jenny Morgenthau.

"We're not going to be able to meet the needs of everybody who needs a summer experience because in our ... five camps, there is a finite number of beds. And we serve about 3,000 children during the course of summer at our camping program," she said.

On the bright side, more people have volunteered to host children this year than in previous years, Morgenthau said.

Volunteers are especially important to the organization because it relies heavily on foundation gifts and benefit events, she said. "Corporations that have taken TARP money are not exactly going to be out there donating big to benefit events."

Likewise, more families are applying for YMCA "camperships," or camp scholarships, Forster said, and donors are responding favorably.

"Where it might be tougher for fundraising for some other things, [assuring that] kids don't have to put up with all this bad news all the time is an easier thing to do right now," Forster said.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of America also has seen anecdotal evidence of a surge of interest for the summer, said Kirk Dominic, executive vice president of club services.

"Some of the more traditional summer camps or weeklong camps or specialty camps ... that some children may have historically gone to, now we're seeing a lot of those kids come to our Boys and Girls Club day camps," Dominic said.

The turbulent economy has posed a challenge for the Boys and Girls Clubs, whose operations are largely funded by donations.

"Clubs are having to find places to cut back," Dominic said. Measures may include canceling field trips, reducing hours of operation, hiring more part-time and fewer full-time employees, and a renewed focus on volunteerism, he said.

Feeding those kids, however, has become a little easier: Through a partnership with Morgan Stanley, Boys and Girls Clubs will provide more than 1 million free meals to children in its programs this summer. About 60 percent of Boys and Girls Clubs participants qualify for free or reduced-priced school lunches, Dominic said.

Even upper-middle-class families in California's Silicon Valley are spending more modestly this summer, said mother-of-two Dowd. Instead of spending money on camps and summer travel, her family will invest in a foosball table. They plan to share it with the family next door, which is buying a table-tennis table, and another neighbor, who's getting an air hockey table.

"Silicon Valley is one of those places where people do go to fancy places. And for so many of our friends and neighbors to be saying, 'We're staying home this year,' is, I guess, kind of a scary thing, but at the same time, it's great."

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