It was March 2020 when my world shut down. Everything I do involves schools—my presentations, after-school and lunch-hour programs, everything. I was on my way to Barbados to perform at a school, then to Calgary and Edmonton and in June, Scotland. I starting to think I was getting too busy, then nothing! I may have thought too loud.
I am an optimist. We had three months until summer camp. I figured COVID would be over by July. As we got closer to camp, a decision had to be made. My first big decision was how I was going to handle refunds. How could I cancel a registration and have parents not lose their non-refundable fee? I wanted to create a policy that would benefit the families who register for camp. When parents register for camp I pay a non-recoupable processing fee. I needed to create a policy that was fair to the families, balanced with surviving a major financial blow to my business.
The first refund policy I created had options. Parents could transfer all their funds to a credit on their account. They would receive a discount on the fees for 2021. Or, if they needed their money, they would receive their funds, minus their non-refundable fee, which would be given back to them as a credit. This seemed a fair policy considering we were still waiting to see if camp would operate. There is not a lot of benefit to Kids 4 Kids allowing parents to move their funds into a credit. This policy would help parents keep all their funds.
The government was taking its time deciding what was going to happen with camps. I am sure it was a difficult decision, but their delayed decision made it difficult to move forward. Some parents were panicking and cancelling their camp registrations. My camper numbers were slowly shrinking. Would I have enough campers to run camp? I had no idea.
Then an announcement. All sleep-away camps would not operate; however, day camps would most likely run. Most likely? This was not a definitive answer. This announcement was allowed by the City of Toronto cancelling all their day camps with an alternative. This pushed some parents into a knee-jerk reaction. The funny thing, well not that funny, was the alternative that the City of Toronto was speaking about was an outside day camp in their parks. They just cancelled their day camps that ran in their community centres.
The government finally announced that day camps could run with mandated processes and policies. But what were they? I had been creating many different scenarios for day camp. I knew they would all involve hand sanitizer and handwashing products. I found a distributor in Brantford and ordered one thousand dollars worth of these produces. Good thing I ordered them in April because every company in June was out of stock.
In mid-June, the government finally released the policies that summer day camp needed to follow. I was hoping these would not include masks. I felt masks would be a health and safety issue during the hot days of summer. Can you imagine kids running around in masks in 100-degree weather? And what would happen if a child went missing?
Can you describe the missing child? Sure, he had a mask on and…
Luckily masks were not mandated. However, group sizes and cohort sizes were. How would I pull off a camp when groups couldn’t be more than fifty and cohort had to be no higher than ten. I still hadn’t received a definitive answer from Camp Sidrabene about whether I would be permitted to run a camp on their property.
After a few meetings with the camp chairs and the camp board meeting separately, we were given the go-ahead to operate camp. Camp Sidrabene permitted us to use two areas on their property to divide our one hundred campers into two teams. We presented a health and safety plan that reflected the precautions we would take while running camp. I hired additional staff, so I had supervision for the cohorts, limited enrolment to one hundred campers, hired two cleaning staff and created a process that would ensure camper safety.
This involved daily temperature checks for my staff, encouraging parents to check their children before coming to camp for illness, fastening hand cleaning foam dispensers to trees and tent polls, washing all camp equipment. I staggered entry into camp and encouraged parents to drop their children off and leave quickly. One of my staff was a nursing student who had a pandemic training certificate. I also had a service that sprayed the washrooms weekly. I added every precaution I could think of to ensure I exceeded the government mandate’s expectations. We encouraged social distancing; however, this was done more by keeping the kids in their cohort than ensuring every camper was six feet apart. This is not realistic with children. It wouldn’t consistently happen at camp, nor will it happen at school. Social distance was encouraged when realistically possible.
The process for creating refund policies and health ad safety protocols was time-consuming and, at times, overwhelming. I was spending three hours every morning answering emails, cancelling registrations and working on protocols. I often wondered if I should have cancel camp for the summer.
I felt a sense of obligation to the students I hired. I knew they depended on me for the money needed for university. I felt a commitment to the families who trusted me and the children who were hoping for camp. Children had already had their school, and many of their extracurricular activities were cancelled. I didn’t want to add to the disappointment children were facing.
To offer camp his summer was going to be the biggest decision of my life. There were so may unknowns: what would happen if a camper staff member got sick; what happens if I got sick; would I be seen as a villain for offering camp; how would the parents be? I would be risking my entire reputation and business. Was it going to be worth it?
The main reason I decided to offer camp was to help children with their mental health. I had spoken with many families who have children struggling with social isolation. The mental health of children was profoundly being affected. Then I saw the video. I watched a video on Facebook that was posted by a dad who lost his son to COVID. His son didn’t die from the virus. He committed suicide because of the effects of social isolation. When I saw this emotionally packed video, I knew I had to run camp. I didn’t know what it was going to be like running camp through a pandemic but seeing this video made me realize the importance of camp for children’s mental health. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJTHFhVyyqI
I have dealt with anxiety issues all my life. I have figured out strategies that help me deal with stress and anxiety. I understand the need to be social and not be isolated. Children needed camp, and I was adamant about making it happen. It wasn’t going to be easy. I knew my anxiety levels would be through the roof. But the importance of camp outweighed my needs. I knew I had an incredible staff, and the parents and children who come to my program are incredible! I knew together we could make camp happen.
I had to cancel the first week of camp because I was not permitted to run a day camp before July. This money was refunded. I turned my full week sleep-away camp into an Extreme Day Camp. Most campers switched into this week. I refunded the fee difference for this camp. I had already lost over one hundred thousand dollars. This was stressful, but I was grateful the day camps would run. The full body rash (which itched the crazy) was a reaction to the stress camp.
During the time I began planning for camp, I took a part-time job at GoodnessME. I needed to get out of the house. I thought I may learn something about healthy eating and wanted to serve my community. Working at GoodnessME was a humbling experience. The job involved a lot of lifting and physical labour. This was a new experience for me. I was in tears by the end of the second day. I didn’t think I could continue; however, I am terrible at quitting things, so I pushed on. I learned how hard people work for minimum wage. It helped me realize how fortunate I have been with my career. As weeks went on, I began to get used to the new routines. There were many times I felt dumb. There were so many little things to learn that, at times, became overwhelming. I committed to GoodnessME until September. I worked a GoodnessME and at my day camp. There were times when it was exhausting; however, I had to push forward.
THE CBC ARTICLE
I had been working at GoodnessME for a month when I received a call from a friend who asked if I would be interested in being interviewed. Her friend was writing an article about entrepreneurs who were working in a grocery store during the pandemic. I agree to be interviewed. About five minutes after I hung up the phone with my friend, I received a call from a Dianne Buckner who worked for CBC. She asked me about Kids 4 Kids and what it was like to work in a grocery store. I didn’t think much about being interviewed.
“Who would read the article anyways.”
I also didn’t realize that Dianne Buckner was the host of The Dragon’s Den.
The article was published on the CBC website. I received a call from a friend in Texas and from friends around Toronto who read the article. Who knew? I also received a message from an individual on LinkedIn who thought I should not have taken the job and allowed someone who needed the position to have it. When I walked into GoodnessME the day after article was published, my boss said, “Nice article.” Great! Was this going to be another thing to add to my stress and anxiety?
I had all the protocols in place, camp was ready to go. I had no idea how anxious parents would be or if the children would be able to follow the new protocols. It’s one thing setting up a process. It’s another thing to follow it. I cancelled the bus service for the first week because they were too many parents cancelling this option. I was about to have one hundred families drive down a one-lane driveway. I had no idea how things would go. The process of getting families into camp and their children into their cohorts went surprisingly well. When campers arrived at camp they chose a leader and waited at the picnic table until they had nine campers. They were then off to their campsite. The first week of camp was sweltering. If heat could kill a virus, it would have been dead on Monday. It was stinking hot!
Campers were washing their hands and staying in their cohorts. Social distancing was not an exact science, but we were doing our best. My anxiety levels experienced peaks and valleys. Realizing breaching the mandated government policy could deliver a fine of $850 per camp didn’t help my anxiety levels. I chose to focus on the importance of helping children with their mental health. This had to outweigh any potential negative concern.
On the third week of camp, two of my staff members were on their way to the parking lot to deliver a child to their parents picking up for a doctor’s appointment. When they got to the parking lot, a car pulled in. It wasn’t the parent of the child, but the grandparents of one of my staff members, who is also my goddaughter. They arrived in a panic to tell her that her father had collapsed and she was to come with them. Then the phone rang. It was my god daughter’s mother telling her her father was gone. Of course, my staff member collapsed from grief. I was halfway back to Brantford when my camp director phoned me with the news. Not only was this my staff member’s dad, but a friend of thirty years. This was just one more event that would add to my stress and anxiety. I encouraged my goddaughter to take the week off, but because of her dedication to the campers, she was back the next day. Her commitment is a reflection of the quality of staff I have who serve the children. She pushed through the summer and was incredible with the campers. I think camp was a good distraction for her.
DAY CAMP MIRACLE
We had eight weeks of summer day camp, dividing the kids into two camps, cohorts of ten, washing hands and sanitizing everything. There were few masks, over one thousand children and no cases of COVID. The children that came to camp had an incredible experience and are defiantly better for it. When they get to school, they will be mentally strong, resilient and have the tenacity to help them face the day.
We deked out the rain, except for one day when it not only rained, but hailed. Camp Sidrabene allowed us to use many of their buildings, so we were able to spread the kids out. We had a box of Camp Kahuna buffs that could be used as masks if needed. We were prepared for whatever came. I told the kids that it is important to push forward and yell, “BRING IT ON” when adversity strikes. We chanted this phrase a lot, or t least I did.
We need to be careful with the amount of negativity we feed our brains each day. The news is filled with mixed messages. The internet is plagued with false information. The commercials that connect our television shows are injected with adjectives that promote fear and negativity. Even the music used is melancholy and sad. Mental health is as important as our physical health. Children need to play and be with each other. They need to see each other’s faces to learn how to read the reactions of others. Let’s teach children about personal hygiene and personal space, but keep realistic health measures in place. Let’s not forget that mental health and physical health are brothers the need to grow together.