Families struggling to afford summer camp as inflation stretches budgets

·5 min read
Tim Good, the executive director of Camp Kadesh, speaks to campers. The non-profit camp has seen an increase in demand for financial assistance. 'We just recognize this is something that kids need, and I know we will try and find every way we can to run,' Good said.  (Camp Kadesh - image credit)
Tim Good, the executive director of Camp Kadesh, speaks to campers. The non-profit camp has seen an increase in demand for financial assistance. 'We just recognize this is something that kids need, and I know we will try and find every way we can to run,' Good said. (Camp Kadesh - image credit)

Summer camp season has begun, but with inflation at record highs, summertime child care has become an extraordinary expense for families already overextended by a higher cost of living.

Anneliese Lawton, a mother of three from Burlington, Ont., said that the gymnastics summer camp that her children normally attend isn't a financially viable option this year as their budget is stretched by inflation. The camp she had planned to send her two sons to costs $300 a week for each camper.

"As soon as I kind of put that through, I was like, crap, we can't afford for them to do this," Lawton said.

Instead, Lawton's sons, ages four and five, respectively, will attend a trampoline and tumbling camp in town for part of the week.

A hired student will help with child care the rest of the week as Lawton juggles full-time remote work and a two-year-old.

"Going to Costco now is like a mortgage payment," she said. "So, with the increased cost of groceries and gas, it's basically impossible to afford these camps on top of it."

Inflation, operating costs drive fee increases

With inflation at its peak, summer camp — already a luxury for many families — has become increasingly out of reach as families are being forced to make difficult spending decisions.

Canada's inflation rate hit 7.7 per cent last month, an almost 40-year high. Compared to May 2021, consumers were paying 48 per cent more for gas while food prices have gone up 9.7 per cent in the last year.

Submitted by Anneliese Lawton
Submitted by Anneliese Lawton

Just as parents have had to budget for higher costs, so, too, have summer camps across the country. In many cases, that means charging families more for registration.

Summer camp administrators across Canada have told CBC News that inflation has forced them to drive up their prices significantly, making their programs unaffordable for some families.

Camps rely on essentials such as gas for boats, natural gas for barbecues and food to provide meals to campers. Inflation has driven up the prices of these necessities significantly.

Summer camps usually set their fees well in advance and make small, incremental changes to account for inflation, said Stephen Jackson, president of the British Columbia Camps Association.

This year was different at Camp Bob, a co-ed Christian wilderness camp in Campbell River, B.C., where Jackson is executive director.

While camp fees usually increase by $5 to $10 per year, the camp upped its prices by $35 a week this year.

Jackson said this year's increase was so significant because there was no incremental price increase in 2021, and in 2020, the camp was closed due to COVID-19. When he added up the costs of inflation and the normal price increases that happen year to year, he had no choice but to raise fees.

"Inflation had been really significant and will be significant," Jackson said.

Submitted by Anneliese Lawton
Submitted by Anneliese Lawton

Food, gas and energy aren't the only factors in the price hikes. In May 2022, prices for the use of recreational facilities and services — which includes summer camps in the agency's consumer price index — rose 4.9 per cent compared to May 2021, according to Statistics Canada.

In Montreal, Camp Ecolart — which also runs small outdoor-adventure camps in Banff, Whistler and San Diego —  raised its prices by 30 per cent.

"We lost a lot of registrations because parents can't afford it," owner Mariano Liu said, "So, it's definitely a direct impact on sales."

Higher demand for financial assistance

While private camps have been forced to raise registration fees, non-profits such as Camp Kadesh in Christopher Lake, Sask., are seeing record-high demand for subsidies, which are paid for by their donors.

Tim Good, the executive director of Camp Kadesh, said that the camp relies on charitable donations and hasn't had to raise its prices this year. He said that he has had to ask donors for more money because of the higher demand for financial assistance.

"What we are seeing is a lot more people applying for subsidies," Good said. "We do that on a family by family basis."

During a typical year, according to Good, the camp builds $10,000 into its annual budget to be used for subsidies. But the demand for financial assistance this year equates to over $20,000.

He says that in a normal year, the camp's annual food budget is over $100,000. He worries that if food costs rise 10 to 20 per cent, his budget will be difficult to manage.

"I think food will be the biggest one for us," Good said.  "We're already stretching, trying to make every dollar of food feed as many people as possible."

Anticipating his expenses is made more difficult by the fact that some costs have not not gone up, and that makes managing the books a difficult balancing act.

"It's hard to even really track," Good said, "because some things have gone way up and other things are holding pretty consistent."

Submitted by Tim Good
Submitted by Tim Good

Food costs aren't Good's only consideration. Because Camp Kadesh operates on a lake, a chunk of its programming involves gas-guzzling motorized boats. The cost of gasoline has risen nearly 40 per cent since March of last year, according to Statistics Canada, and is currently hovering around $2 a litre.

Amici Camping Charity partners with 47 summer camps across Ontario to offer financial support to low-income families with children between between the ages of seven and 17. The organization noted higher demand for its services this year.

The executive director of the charity, Judy MacGowan, told CBC News in an email that the charity has seen a 15 per cent increase in camper applications compared to 2019.

Meanwhile, Good says he understands the importance of summer camp and the extent to which it was missed during the COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions.

"We just recognize this is something that kids need, and I know we will try and find every way we can to run," said Good. "I think that would be the attitude of just about every camp across Canada."

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