With the unknowns of COVID-19 last spring, many states in the Northeast didn’t permit overnight camps to operate, including New York state. Instead of closing their doors completely for the summer, some camps pivoted to virtual camp and created a whole new experience for their camp families and beyond.
Christie Ko, Executive Director of the Fiver Children’s Foundation which runs Camp Fiver, an overnight camp for children from underserved NY communities, made the decision to not open camp in May, even before Governor Cuomo announced that overnight camps couldn’t operate. “We realized we couldn’t guarantee a COVID-free environment and with many of our families coming from vulnerable populations, we weren’t willing to take a chance. We reached out to our Fiver families to let them know that resident camp wasn’t going to be running and realized even then, people were feeling social isolation and anxiety about health and family economics. We also learned that our families were looking for the same things that we have always provided which is social-emotional support, adult role models and educational activities. Our team put our creative minds together to figure out what we could provide our families.”
The Fiver leadership team held several brainstorming meetings to plan out what a virtual camp program could look like. “We thought about the key elements and culture of Fiver that we wanted to remain. There are rituals that make our program really special like morning announcements and song of the night that we didn’t want to lose,” explains Ko. “We also reached out to parents and kids about the logistics like how many hours a day would you want to participate, what time would work for a start and what days of the week would work for your family?”
While Camp WiFiver, the virtual camp created by Fiver, served their camp families, Adam Weinstein, Executive Director of Berkshire Hills Eisenberg Camp, a coed Jewish overnight camp in NY, explains that the virtual camp they created, Virtual Summer, was attended by almost 200 kids, although most of them were not campers at camp. “One of the coolest parts of our online camp was that we had a diverse community of children from Africa, Poland and California, as well as many from the tri-state area. While Virtual Summer wasn’t comparable to traditional camp, we set it up in a way that was fun with camp favorites like flag pole and skits and a number of activities that worked well virtually including fitness, yoga, magic and cooking. Kids could sign up for anywhere from 1-4 hours each day and pick the type of programs they wanted to do.”
Based on camp family feedback, Camp WiFiver had four, two week sessions and offered five hours of live programming during the week, with a Sunday night reflection period which is something they do in a typical summer. “The day consisted of a large group meeting where the whole camp participated and we would live stream from our camp pavilion where we would usually do morning announcements. Campers had two cabin meetings a day as well,” says Ko. “Each camper also selected two electives from a choice of about fifteen from origami to basketball to jewelry making. We built in a break and regrouped for evening activity where we live streamed camp favorites like a camp fire or a scavenger hunt.” They also built a new website that looked like camp where you could click on a certain activity area of camp like the lake or the tennis courts and there would be instructional lessons or a greeting from a staff member from that activity. “One button on the site was the dining hall where we would do a song of the night. Staff members recorded videos of the song of the night and each day, another one would be unlocked. Kids could also write positive affirmations about campers and staff which is typically done in person at camp but we created a way to do it online. A silver lining that came out of this all was that we now have this virtual element where kids can have a portal to Fiver that they can access all year.”
Weinstein says that Virtual Summer provided the opportunity for children to have some structure this past summer during the pandemic and also give them a chance to see friends safely. “Many parents were on their own screens working and this gave children the chance to be in a structured activity with an adult and other kids they could engage with.” He adds that he saw many connections being made and relationships developing online but says you can’t build a camp community virtually. “Online camp misses out on those opportunities for children to participate in self-regulated activities that take place at camp and are terrific at building strong connections that you just don’t get in a virtual program.”