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Maine Camps Prepare To Welcome Kids Back This Summer With Renewed Focus On Social Skills

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Hidden Valley Camp

Last summer, Maine's summer camp industry skidded to a halt because of the pandemic. Eighty percent of overnight camps in Maine suspended operations. But this summer, the vast majority will reopen. Operators will not only have to make adjustments for COVID-19 - they'll also have to prepare for kids who are anxious or need a tune-up on social skills after being isolated for more than a year.

Eight-year old Lowy Fairfield of Kennebunkport remembers getting the news last year that summer sleepaway camp was cancelled due to the pandemic.

"When I found out, I was heartbroken," Lowy says.

It would have been Lowy's second year at Hidden Valley Camp in Montville, and year number 8 for her 16-year old sister Finley, who says the return to camp this summer feels more important than ever after living under the realities of a pandemic.

"I think I've been so distanced, that I really - I haven't gotten to see people," Finley says. "And just being able to be kind of immersed in a group of people that I know love and support me for a month, it's just going to feel amazing."

As much as Finley is excited, she's also a little nervous. Because she's going from a year spent mostly at home with her family to a place where she'll suddenly be surrounded by a lot of people.

"I have social anxiety. So, I had been working on coming out of my shell before the pandemic hit, and I've just retracted right back in, not being able to see people," Finley says. "And the part of me that's a little bit nervous about going back to camp is the social anxiety part, where I'm just worried I'll forget how to function with lots of humans around me."

Finley describes it as her "social battery," which she worries is depleted. Other veteran camp kids share similar trepidation. 17-year old Mitch Ishimwe of Portland is returning to Maine Teen Camp in Porter for her fourth summer. She can't wait for the freedom of camp after a chaotic year. But she also feels out of practice striking up conversations with new people.

"The nervousness is mostly about being social, for me, anyway, rather than being safe from COVID, because of vaccinations and all," Mitch says.

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Maine Teen Camp

"Kids have gone through a traumatic year. And there's no way around it they're going to have socialization reentry issues," says Ron Hall, the executive director of Maine Summer Camps.

Starting last fall, he set up workshops with psychologists so camps could better understand what kids are going through and how to prepare. At Maine Teen Camp, co-director Matt Pines says social skills are learned, and many kids are simply out of practice.

"Like any learned skill, if you don't practice it, you suffer a bit of entropy there. And so we're anticipating that campers are going to have some rust built up on some of those skills," Pines says.

And they'll need a social tune up. Pines' wife and co-director, Monique, says they also expect some kids will wrestle with challenges that may not have been issues in the past. Physical and social inertia. Disconnecting with technology. Even homesickness among older kids.

"They've been home, with their parents, in the same house, for a long time," Monique Pines says. "And they've gotten used to the idea of the comfort of home, the comforts of mom and dad around."

To help kids adjust, Maine Teen Camp is planning a more gradual transition into camp life. Instead of being immersed in high-energy, camp-wide kick offs, the kids will start their sessions in smaller groups. That's also the plan at Hidden Valley Camp, where Peter Kassen is co-director.

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Hidden Valley Camp

"So we're starting off slow," Kassen says. "The first few days are going to be based on cabin life. And just kind of getting people acquainted with each other, and creating a nice, warm comfortable, dependable, trusting connection among small groups of people, before people branch out."

Kassen says a slow start will also give staff time and space to support campers when personal challenges crop up.

"A good counselor, they just need to listen, and be empathic, and show some consistency to develop a trusting relationship. And sometimes that's all that a child needs. And we'll probably need to do that a little bit more this summer," Kassen says.

After a collective loss of community over the past year, some camp directors say this summer has the potential to be among the most meaningful, profound experiences for kids who will have a chance to reconnect. Both with people, says Maine Teen Camper Mitch Ishimwe, and with nature.

"[I] just kind of need to be in-person and outdoors. I think the outdoors is what I'm looking most forward to, just fresh air and being outside and not staring at a screen," Mitch says.

Sleepaway camps get underway starting at the end June.