In Howard County, growing need for financial aid to send kids to summer camps

Finding a summer camp that meets kids' needs without blowing the family budget is a challenge for working parents everywhere, but for those hit hardest by the sluggish economy, it can be especially tricky.

Until this year, not many Howard County families were among that financially strapped group. But with 2012 only half over, nearly twice as many financial aid requests — for four times the amount of money — have been logged at the Y in Ellicott City compared with all of last year.

"Has the need gone up in Howard County? The answer is a resounding 'yes,'" said Sara Milstein, chief marketing officer of the Y of Central Maryland. "This is a big indicator of the recession's impact on one of the wealthiest counties in the nation."

In the 2011 calendar year, $6,800 was raised through the Y's Send a Kid to Camp campaign to cover expenses for 26 Howard County campers, who received an average of $250, Milstein said. So far in 2012, $28,000 has been raised to help 47 kids, whose families received $594 on average.

That means that not only are more children eligible, based on their parents' income, as determined by federal guidelines, but they are also receiving larger individual awards.

"This year, for the first time, Howard County goes from being the county where we see the least demand for aid to being right in the middle," Milstein said.

A customized email plea for donations went out June 19 to members of the Dancel Family Center Y, located on Montgomery Road in front of Veterans Elementary School, stating that 20 of the 178 kids on a financial-aid waiting list lived in Howard County. The list also includes residents served by Y locations in Baltimore City, as well as Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties.

"That email was just a moment in time, a snapshot," Milstein said. "We raise money and give it away as fast as we raise it. If we hit a wall [when no funds are immediately available], then kids may go on a waiting list. But we also sometimes go into the hole, as it were, giving away funds before we actually have them because we know what's coming to us. It's a very fluid situation."

It's a situation seen in other Howard markets the Y serves.

At the Y's Early Childhood Development Center in Owen Brown, a year-round program for which donations are solicited continuously, $66,250 was raised in 2011 to meet families' needs, she said. This year, $63,000 has been raised, putting that program on track to come up with twice the funding to meet residents' demand.

Milstein said she "wouldn't necessarily say the Y was caught off-guard" at the increase in requests, since staff members have been observing other indicators of the recession's impact for years.

But it's a growing need "that is easy to not see in the midst of so much wealth," she said.

Helen Kottis was especially grateful to the Y for providing financial help so her two kids could attend camp the entire summer of 2008, when the recession first struck, she said.

The aid helped Anastasia, then 7, and Bailey, then 6, and allowed Kottis, a single mother who couldn't afford day care, to work, she said.

"It's a good thing that the Y is able to do this," she said. "There are lots of Howard County families who are affluent, and it's easy to forget that there are people here who need help."

The Y is redoubling its efforts to keep up with increased demand, Milstein said.

Michelle Reedy, Dancel Family Center director, said residents in need turn to the Y because the nonprofit organization charges about half the cost of a similar, privately run camp.

The Dancel Center camp offers both outdoor and indoor activities, which are especially important with recent sizzling weather and storm-related power outages, she said. The camp features two pools, two gyms and a two-story rock-climbing wall, all part of the 60,000-square-foot center's $13 million renovation and expansion in June 2009. Previous camps were mainly conducted outdoors.

"Kids get to swim, play in the gym … it's a very well-run camp," she said. "The beauty of this camp is that if parents say finances are an issue, we can help get them through a difficult time."

Wetzel Drake, a 32-year-old attorney in private practice, has taken time away from law for the past two summers to be camp director in Ellicott City, where some 300 campers are registered. He had previously worked at a Baltimore County Y in Essex while attending law school.

"I love working with kids because I can be a big kid myself," he said with a laugh.

What sets the Y apart, he said, is its tradition of emphasizing four basic core values: caring, honesty, respect and responsibility, all blended with a goal of healthful living.

"We are always pushing values as a focus of the Y camp experience," Drake said. "It's a different environment than soccer camp or drama camp, and it creates our brand. And the push runs from the top down."

Bill Graeff, chairman of the Y's Community Action Board, said the volunteer group's "primary mission is to raise money" and more is being asked of board members in that regard.

"Our No. 1 use for the money we raise is the Send a Kid to Camp program," he said, noting members of the board join staff members in making a financial commitment to the program.

The Dancel Center's newest partnership is with the Columbia Triathlon Association, which recently gave the center $5,000, representing half of the organization's 2012 pledge to Y, Graeff said.

"We supply volunteers to help run their races and, in turn, they give us a contribution," said Graeff, an Ellicott City resident.

Kari Ebeling, chief operating officer at Columbia Triathlon, said the nonprofit racing association recently created a Learn to Tri program for young people through the county's public schools, and that has resulted in its commitment to the Y's summer camp, which is "all about health and fitness for youth."

"We see the value of how important it is to reach out to our younger residents and to encourage them to be active," she said.

In trying economic times, it truly is a case of the more contributors the merrier, said Reedy, who notes the Y is always seeking donors so that all who want to use their services can do so.

"We partner with a lot of people," she said. "They say the more friends you have, the better life is."

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