Across Maine, Social Workers Are Becoming A Part Of The Summer Camp Experience

Aug 12, 2019

Thousands of kids across the state are in their final month of summer camp. The camp setting has often been viewed as a therapeutic experience that can teach kids social skills and teamwork and build self-esteem. But many camp administrators in Maine say they're seeing more kids with social and emotional issues, including anxiety and attention deficit disorders, and now camps are responding to those needs in a number of ways.

When you think about that idyllic, New England summer camp experience, Camp Beech Cliff on Mt. Desert Island is probably close to what you picture. More than 800 kids, mostly locals, attend the day camp over the course of the summer, where they swim and canoe at nearby Echo Lake, practice rock climbing and, of course, do arts and crafts.

Inside a big, canvas tent, an incoming third-grader named Liberty is cutting up an old dress and repurposing it.

"So I'm doing like a purse, or like a bag," Liberty says.

Liberty says camp is "awesome" this summer, but last year was a lot harder for her. She says when she got into a big group, like at lunch time, she could get overwhelmed.

“I just get mad or sad,” she says. “I don't have any place to go except in my group. So I just want to be alone, but I can't, because I'm in the group.”

This summer, Liberty says camp has been a lot easier because of a new social worker on staff. Camp Beech Cliff is part of a growing number of camps that are hiring on-site mental health professionals to address increasing rates of social-emotional issues, like anxiety and ADHD, that have become a challenge for campers, counselors and administrators.

“As a field, we are definitely, for the past 10 to 15 years, we've been seeing an increase, an uptick, of trauma coming to camp with kids, and also with young staff members,” says Tom Rosenberg, the CEO of the American Camp Association. The Association did a survey finding that more than a third of camps responding expected to see an increased number of campers and staff with diagnosed social-emotional needs.

The entrance to the "chill zone" at Camp Beech Cliff.
Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public

“So we've been working really hard to understand those needs and then create supports for them and accommodate them,” Rosenberg says.

Rosenberg says his organization offers professional development and access to trainings, such as mental health first aid courses. But Debbie Deal, the executive director of Camp Beech Cliff, says in recent years, it became clear that more was needed.

“Because we do 40 hours, at least, of training,” Deal says. “And then we do some other, additional trainings as camp went on. We had a procedure that would work, but we found more and more kids actually needing the help.”

This year, Camp Beech Cliff has brought in a white tent, called the "chill zone." Inside is a newly hired social worker, Corrie Hunkler, who has outfitted the shelter with soft chairs and drawers stuffed with Play-Doh and other squishy toys. Hunkler says up to 15 campers a day visit the chill zone when they feel upset or overwhelmed — like lunch — or have a conflict that needs to be resolved.

“Because these are big times of the day where it's loud, it's chaotic. So these kids that struggle, or have more things going on, they really need that extra support,” says Hunkler.

The visits to the tent often aren't long, maybe 5 to 10 minutes. They talk about how the camper is feeling, then make a plan to help them rejoin their group. Camper Liberty says its helped her.

A camper spends time in the "chill zone" at Camp Beech Cliff on Mount Desert Island.
Credit Robbie Feinbergy / Maine Public

“It's really nice. If I get stressed out or sad, or angry, I could just go there and chill out to get away from the group,” she says.

Other Maine camps have added mental health professionals to assist both campers and staff members, but cost is a barrier. A recent survey from the American Camp Association suggests that about one-fifth of summer camps had a mental health professional on-site, while more used on-call support.

Maine Teen Camp in Porter recently brought in a professional to assist staff, says Director Monique Rafuse. They're looking at someone to help campers, too.

“Would it be nice to have someone hired full-time? Gosh, yeah,” says Rafuse. “But I don't see camps being able to afford that. I think a contracting scenario, with one day a week, would be a great baby step to the future.”

At Camp Beech Cliff, this year’s funding for its "chill zone" and other social-emotional programming has come from private and philanthropic donations. And administrators say they're encouraged by the early results. In recent years, they’ve been forced to send a few kids home each summer due to social-emotional issues. But this year, with more support, they say that hasn’t happened.