By John W. Coleman
The four Camp & Retreat Centers spread across the Eastern PA Conference have made the painful decision to suspend onsite summer camp this year, which was to begin in June. That action was taken Friday, May 29, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and severely restrictive guidelines to ensure social distancing and other cautionary measures to protect campers and their families.
The camps’ site directors arrived at the decision in meetings with their site committees, the conference’s Camp & Retreat Ministry Board and conference officials. The officials included Bishop Peggy Johnson and chairs of the conference trustees, finance and administration, and human resources–all stakeholders in the camps’ operations.
“This is a tough decision because our summer camps are so beloved and offer such foundational experiences in the lives of children and youth,” said the Rev. Don Keller, camping board chair. “It’s a real loss to our families and churches, as well as our staff and volunteers who play such essential roles in this life-changing ministry. But we must make the health of everyone our primary concern and not take any chances with this devastating virus.”
Eastern PA is reportedly among the last conferences in the United Methodist connection to close its camps for the summer. The decision was delayed until the site directors received and carefully examined complex mitigation guidelines provided by Governor Tom Wolf and the state’s Public Health Commissioner, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and the American Camping Association, which is the camps’ accrediting body.
Summer camps at three of the centers–Gretna Glen in Lebanon, Innabah in Spring City, and Pocono Plateau in Cresco–are suspended for the summer. But Carson-Simpson Farm in Hatboro is taking it a month at a time.
“We will be cancelling all activities on our site for the month of June,” said new director Jonathan Curtis. “We will wait until Montgomery County transitions into the Green Phase before we can begin to consider opening our program.”Montgomery County and the entire Philadelphia region are now in the governor’s Red Phase, with extreme mitigation limits on public gatherings. Some areas may move into the Yellow Phase in early June; but those restrictions are deemed still too severe for summer camp.
“With all of the current guidelines…we believe that while in the “Yellow Phase,” we cannot live up to the rigorous guidelines that have been passed down by the state and CDC without unnecessary risk to our campers, staff, and their families,” Curtis explained in a letter posted on the center’s website.
“This past week was one of the most difficult weeks in my ministry at Pocono Plateau,” wrote the Rev. Ron Schane, Director. “As we struggled with the implementation of the guidelines, it became evident that we are unable to maintain best practices for the safety of all participants.
Innabah, which celebrated its 90th anniversary last year, will close for the first time in its history. But “while this summer won’t be the same for any of us,” wrote Michael Hyde, Director, “we remain committed to staying connected as a camp family throughout the summer and months to follow.”
“The unknowns of this virus are just too great,” wrote Apryl Miller, Director of Gretna Glen, in her letter to families. “During these many weeks of seeking a safe way forward, it became clear that offering camp would not be in the best interest of our campers whom we love dearly. Social distancing, PPE (personal protective equipment) and quarantine protocols, along with screening availability would need to be in place for summer programs to operate at the level we expect.
“Camp would be nothing like we know it to be under these guidelines,” she continued. “As a result, we decided to suspend summer programs to protect our campers, volunteers, staff, and every parent, sibling, and grandparent connected to our wider community.”
“Many tears have been shed,” Miller added. “We mourn the loss of serving our campers and families this summer.”
However, camp directors have offered camp-like activities online for children and families to enjoy in the past two months and hope to offer more. And Miller said her staff is working on plans for “non-custodial program experiences” onsite at
Gretna Glen for small numbers of families and children. “While activity at our sites is curtailed,” said Keller, “our call to ministry remains the same, and we continue to look for creative opportunities to serve our churches, our families and our communities.”
“Camp will never really stop, even if sessions are suspended this summer,” said Bishop Johnson. “The spirit of outdoor Christian community, the wonders of nature and the Spirit of God continue to shine forth from these sacred grounds. They await your return in the future.”