Plainfield's summer camp is back this year. Why is its future never quite guaranteed?

·3 min read

PLAINFIELD ― More than 20 Plainfield recreation department camp counselors, coordinators and activity specialists recently sat at long cafeteria tables inside the Shepard Hill Elementary School and prepared for the upcoming first day of camp.

“I’ve got a lot of siblings so I kind of know what to expect,” said 17-year-old counselor Jacob Dickinson. “But there’s going to be a lot of first-graders running around on Tuesday.”

Back for its second year in a row, the resurrected summer camp program is poised to welcome 30 campers each week from Plainfield, Canterbury and Voluntown through Aug. 12, with parents able to sign their children up for multiple weeks, Recreation Director Mark Simmons said.

“We’ve got awesome specialists in art, STEM and sports; field trips set for Roger Williams Zoo, a trampoline park and the fish hatchery; and theme weeks planned out,” he said. “I know for some parents this provides needed child care during the summer, but we also want this experience to be an enriching one, a fun place for them to be.”

But the program was never a sure thing. For years, the town covered the cost of counselor salaries and programming, but a combination of budget cuts and more recent COVID-19 restrictions paused the program years ago.

Ryan Perry, 18, of South Windham, carries a bag of basketballs into Shepard Hill Elementary School for himself and other staff counselors for the Plainfield Summer Recreation Program.
Ryan Perry, 18, of South Windham, carries a bag of basketballs into Shepard Hill Elementary School for himself and other staff counselors for the Plainfield Summer Recreation Program.

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Last year, recreation and other officials secured a $98,500 AccelerateCT Summer Enrichment Innovation Grant to revive the program. A similar $108,000 grant finally came through earlier this year to keep the camp going.

“We were initially told the grant would be a one-to-one match for municipalities, meaning we would have had to pay $54,000 of the cost, something we weren’t in a position to do,” Simmons said.

Simmons, with the help of town officials and local legislators, including state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Griswold, successfully petitioned the state to exempt towns from the matching requirement.

Amber Longo-Squires, Plainfield Recreation Department program director, instructs Plainfield Summer Recreation Program counselors and staff at Shepard Hill Elementary School in Plainfield.
Amber Longo-Squires, Plainfield Recreation Department program director, instructs Plainfield Summer Recreation Program counselors and staff at Shepard Hill Elementary School in Plainfield.

“Maybe some towns could afford to pay that kind of money, but many towns in Windham County are distressed communities and were at a disadvantage,” he said. “Since 2019, the cost of running the program has jumped by $20,000 when you include the new minimum wage and higher gas prices.”

And though the program got a financial reprieve this season, that grant funding, funneled into the state Department of Education as part of the federal pandemic relief American Rescue Plan Act, will not be available next year.

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In addition to paying the camp employees and helping cover transportation costs for out-of-town campers, the grant money pays for camper “scholarships,” which helps defray the attendance cost for residents who cannot afford it. The programming fee also covers breakfast and lunch for campers.

“We’re looking into doing fundraisers and creating dedicated scholarship fund,” Simmons said.

Counselors and other camp overseers are paid between $14 and $17.50 an hour with many in town until college resumes in the fall. Angel Stewart, 22, was hired back this year as an inclusion specialist and will spend the bulk of her time ensuring children with behavioral issues enjoy their camp experience.

Angel Stewart, 22, of Plainfield, right, and other staff members of the Plainfield Summer Recreation Program, set up a first aid kit for the program at the Shepard Hill Elementary School in Plainfield.
Angel Stewart, 22, of Plainfield, right, and other staff members of the Plainfield Summer Recreation Program, set up a first aid kit for the program at the Shepard Hill Elementary School in Plainfield.

“The first week is usually a little chaotic, but it gets more controlled after that,” said Stewart, who studies art therapy as Massachusetts’ Springfield College. “Last year, we all wore masks because of COVID and gathered in smaller groups. I think it’ll be a lot easier this year and a better experience.”

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Camp coordinator Jenna Klapper, 29, said she’d been involved with the town’s summer camp program since she was a teen.

“I’m a hometown girl and I like it here,” the Moosup resident said. “I also work as a paraprofessional at Moosup Elementary School so I see many of the same kids I do at work. It’s a great chance for them to socialize with their school friends and meet new kids.”

John Penney can be reached at jpenney@norwichbulletin.com or at (860) 857-6965.

This article originally appeared on The Bulletin: Plainfield summer camp 2022 features art, STEM, sports, field trips