From riding horses to spending time with friends on the beach, Suzanne Bowker has fond memories of her childhood adventures at Forest Cliff Camp — but she's sad that a new group of kids won't be able to make their own memories at the camp this year.
This week, the Ford government announced that overnight camps in the province would remain closed, but added indoor and outdoor summer day camps "may" be allowed in July and August with "strict health and safety guidelines."
But Forest Cliff Camp isn't taking any chances, electing to discontinue all in-person camp events for the remainder of the summer — the first shutdown of the camp's 80-year history.
"I got an email saying that it had been cancelled. It really did make me sad," said Bowker, who now works as a counsellor at Forest Cliff. "I was hoping that my grandson would have his first year at the camp."
Bowker first joined Forest Cliff as a young camper in 1973. She stayed on years later as a counselor, stepped away after getting married and returned to Forest Cliff once her three children — who are now in their 30's — became campers themselves.
"It was really fun just to see camp through my children's eyes, but also to see it through campers' eyes when they arrive on camp for the first time and and just don't know what to expect," she said.
Bowker said she's disappointed that the same kids who were excited to attend camp won't be able to have that experience this year, adding it's a place where you can learn life skills and interpersonal qualities.
"It's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing that they can experience at camp. So to not have that, they're missing out on some experiences that they would have."
Safety top of mind
On Tuesday, Forest Cliff Camp issued a statement on social media, saying it would not be running its day camps this summer, citing an inability to implement proper safety measures for campers, staff and their families "in the face of this pandemic."
"At that point, we had some contingencies in place. But at that point, we also decided that the safest option for us and the families that trust us was to close all of our day camp locations at the same time," said Tyler Shaule, executive director for Forest Cliff Camp.
The organization normally welcomes about 2,400 children to its overnight summer camp and "another couple thousand" to its day camps which are held in cities across southwestern Ontario, according to Shaule.
"It is a very hard thing to know that there's so many kids who are going through a lot of disappointment and sadness," he said. "There's a lot of parents who came to camp themselves as children who really wanted that for their kids as part of their childhood."
Instead, Forest Cliff Park is working on alternative measures to still connect with its campers, but details on what those are still being ironed out by staff.
'Uncertainty' has other camp organizers concerned
The Windsor-Essex Therapeutic Riding Association (WETRA) runs a summer day camp of its own between early June and August end, welcoming about 20 children in rotation per week.
"We've been raising revenue with our summer camps for the last 30 years or so, providing service to kids who need support at camp — kids with disabilities, cognitive or physical," said WETRA's executive director Becky Mills.
"We integrate those children with kids in the community who want to attend a horse camp. They make good friends and support each other and and learn to be accepting and inclusive."
But this year, the chances of running the camp in its traditional capacity are looking bleak. As specifics remain unknown, Mills said moving forward with figuring out how to safely provide services to 20 children at a time is just "not going to be a possibility."
"If the camps were to happen this year, I would still need the same amount of summer students because we need time to prepare action plans and safety protocols," said Mills. "The ratio would have to be one instructor to a lot less children."
One option WETRA is considering is to move ahead with its summer day camp at a significantly reduced capacity — allowing just five children per week to participate, rather than 20.
The organization might even need to exclude kids who need a support person with them, since it could violate physical distancing guidelines.
"We have to look at maybe bringing only one rider in who can ride without being physically supported with hands-on support from people walking at their side. Even the person leading the horse would have to be sure to keep a good distance," said Mills.
"The uncertainty is very difficult for everyone here."
Windsor, Tecumseh, LaSalle waiting it out
In Windsor-Essex, towns and municipalities are still holding out hope that summer day camps will be permitted to operate.
Officials with the City of Windsor will make a decision regarding summer day camps "in the coming weeks when a full assessment is completed," according to communications director Jason Moore.
In LaSalle, the town has not made any decisions about whether or not summer day camps will operate. According to Dawn Hadre, communications officer for the Town of LaSalle, all summer program registration has been postponed "until further notice"
It's a similar situation in the Town of Tecumseh, according to recreation services director Paul Anthony. He said town officials are waiting on direction from the province throughout the next few weeks before a decision on running summer day camps is made.