Giving Thought: New group takes innovative approach to managing summer camp stress

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

Each year as the school year comes to a close, families across the region start making plans for the summer. For many, these plans include enrolling their children in one of the region’s summer programs. Summer programs have proven to enrich student learning, boost achievement, improve social-emotional skills and provide an essential service for working families when school is out of session. However, these programs are not accessible for every family — researchers call this “the enrichment gap.”

The enrichment gap refers to the inequality of access to out-of-school enrichment programs for children who are Black or Hispanic, or for children who come from households with lower incomes or whose parents have lower educational attainment. This impacts a considerable number of children and families in the region. As a result, families have grappled with the accessibility and affordability of summer programs for years. Though there are a wide variety of programs to choose from, many lack the resources and capacity to accommodate the ever-growing need.

“Summer presents a huge challenge for families — both in terms of keeping kids busy and also parents having time to work,” said Katherine Sand, director of Aspen Family Connections. “Cost of programming is also prohibitive for many families.”

To fill this gap, Pitkin County has assembled a working group with the goal of expanding access to summer programs. This collaborative is a unique combination of private, public and nonprofit organizations working together for the good of the families across Pitkin County. Meetings consist of representatives from nonprofits, schools, government agencies and health authorities.

“We want to make sure every child who wants to get involved in summer programming has access to it,” said Michaela Idhammar-Ketpura, executive director of Aspen Youth Center. “The kids really need to have this sort of activity. Parents need it too.”

Together, this working group is using their combined expertise to eliminate the barriers that keep children from attending summer programs — affordability, availability and accessibility.

There are many local camps that offer a variety of unique experiences for children, but most of them come at a cost. One of the only organizations in the region that offers free summer programming for kids is Aspen Youth Center (AYC). During a normal summer, AYC accepts all children interested in attending camp as long as they are from the area and fit into the specified age range. Due to COVID precautions, however, this capacity has decreased.

“When our capacity decreased, many families had nowhere else to go to get affordable child care,” Idhammar-Ketpura said. “It shined a light on the severity of the need.”

The issue of availability is not unique to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even without directives from the Centers for Disease Control, many summer programs in the region operate with a limited availability. Each year, spots in these programs open at inconvenient times that exclude working parents from being able to sign up.

Beyond availability, accessibility is another familiar concern. For families with children with disabilities or special needs, spots in accommodating programs are hard to find. If families have financial barriers, finding these programs can be near impossible.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these issues and amplified the need for sustainable solutions in the region. As an organization committed to empowering children and families, Aspen Community Foundation is hopeful this cross-industry collaboration could bring about more opportunities for youth in Pitkin County.

“The collaboration is better than it’s ever been,” said Desiree Whitehead, the operations manager for the City of Aspen Recreation. “We can do so much more if we extend our collaboration to more child care providers.”

Currently, the group is creating a comprehensive resource that will list all of Pitkin County’s summer programs. This resource will include information about cost, restrictions and registration requirements.

“The goal of this resource is to simplify the process of finding and applying to summer programs,” Idhammar-Ketpura said. “I can only imagine the stress of a parent who is trying their best to get all their work done, and then having to deal with the stress of getting their kid into a summer program. There’s inequity in the process, and we want to fix that.”

On top of creating practical solutions, the collaborative has been a space for organizations to learn more about the work of other nonprofits and government offices in Pitkin County. They’re even learning ways to streamline their own processes.

“Working with organizations in the youth and family space has proven to be really beneficial for Aspen Youth Center,” Idhammar-Ketpura said. “We’ve even learned about how we can access new resources and funding opportunities.”

The pandemic has taught us a lot of things. It’s shed light on many of the region’s most glaring inequities and systemic failures. For nonprofits in the area, it’s emphasized the value of collaboration. This Pitkin County working group is a great example of this phenomenon. Harnessing collaboration across organizations will push our community forward.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.