By Brandon Herring
North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
North Carolina 4-H isn’t hosting summer camps this year – at least not the way you’re used to. Because of COVID-19, the organization will host a virtual camp online in June. It’s open to all young people – not just 4-H members.
For Keith Russell, it’s a hard reality to face, but he said he knows the right decision was made to protect the health and safety of campers and staff. He’s been a camp director for decades. The past six years have been at Millstone 4-H Camp in Richmond County – one of 4-H’s three camp locations.
“Last weekend I was sitting in my front yard on the camp, and it was just so quiet. That was really sad to hear,” Russell said. “I’ve been a camp director for more than 30 years, and it’s just so surreal and unusual. I’m not sure how to put it into words to be honest.”
4-H Youth Development is a branch of N.C. Cooperative Extension, which operates under the umbrella of N.C. State University. School leaders announced the decision to cancel 4-H summer camps on April 3. The school also canceled in-person academic and athletic summer camps for K-12 students.
“The number one priority in that decision was the health, safety and wellbeing of our youth and staff,” said Dave Herpy, the N.C. 4-H Camping Specialist.
It was a hard decision for everyone involved in 4-H. Like many others, Russell was sad and he wondered if the decision had come too soon. So many things were unknown at the time, but he realized the cancellation was the right thing to do. He couldn’t see a camp with distancing protocols logistically possible and certainly not resulting in the relationships and experiences that should be part of camp.
“We thought about can we operate camp as normal, and the answer was no,” Russell said. “Distancing at a camp would be tough, and camp is so often about the relationships.”
A different kind of camp
Within two weeks of the cancellation announcement, Herpy and State 4-H Program Leader Dr. Mike Yoder sent a memo to the state 4-H community announcing a “goal and intention to develop, implement, and offer some virtual summer camp opportunities for youth this summer.” The pivot to a virtual camp was a major shift in a short time. Just before the cancellation, 4-H leaders had been pushing forward with normal plans for regular summer camps.
“We see the difference camp makes in young people’s lives every summer, so we definitely went through a grieving process, but we were quickly able to turn that around,” said Angela Brisson, the extension assistant who is leading the transition to virtual camp for the summer.
Instead of several back-to-back week-long camps, the virtual camp will be offered once – the week of June 22-26. Each day there will be a few online sessions where participants gather virtually, plus activities for participants to do at home and outside away from their computers. Because the online sessions will be done through Zoom video conferencing, up to 500 young people will be able to participate. (N.C. 4-H is also offering several educational programs online this summer. Events such as a citizenship seminar, volunteer training and the annual 4-H Congress meeting have also been moved to virtual events online.)
Brisson said in the early planning stages there was a fear among the team that there may not be much interest – that they would put in a lot of effort with no one wanting to participate. They decided they’d need a minimum of ten participants signed up for each session to move forward with doing the virtual camp. Those fears have proven to be unwarranted. To the surprise of everyone working on the virtual camp, about 400 families have signed up to have children involved.
The registration deadline is 5 p.m. on June 12. Brisson said anyone still thinking about signing up should know the virtual camp week is planned so that young people still get outside with limited screen time. Each session – from arts & crafts to a coastal ecology tour and an astronomy night – can be taken on al a carte. They all lead up to a Friday night camp out. Information about food and fun activities will be sent beforehand, so everyone participating can have some things in common as they camp out from their own back yards or living rooms. More information can be found on the N.C. 4-H website. After sign-up more information will be sent about the schedule and how to prepare.
“I’m really excited about this! It’s a really creative team project that’s been fun to work on,” Brisson said. “I can’t wait to execute our plan in June.”
Reaching a new audience
An unexpected silver lining has materialized since the cancellation and transition to a virtual camp. Brisson and Herpy said they’ve seen some young people who wouldn’t have participated in traditional camp have now signed up for the virtual camp.
“We’re all going to miss traditional camp this summer,” Brisson said. “Virtual camp is not the same as traditional camp. You’re not going to get the deep outcomes that you would from a residential camping experience, but [in some unexpected ways] this has proven to be a good option for many kids and parents.”
Some of those families may not have been able to afford the cost of traditional camp, or they may not have been ready to send a child to a residential camp, but the virtual option has been more accessible. With a focus on online engagement N.C. 4-H has also reached a broader audience, including families that had never heard of 4-H.
Experiences lost; connections maintained
Still, with all the excitement about the new possibilities and creative challenges, the sadness about quiet camps this summer remains. There’s no way to avoid it. Several other events planned at the camp locations have also been canceled, including conferences, trainings, church group retreats and even weddings. Their absence adds to the silence.
Russell’s heart also aches for the temporary summer staff members – usually college students – who won’t get the experience of working at a camp this summer. Millstone usually has about 35 seasonal staff members.
“It’s like a second family for a lot of the staff. We call it the Millstone family. It’s a pretty hard blow for them as well,” Russell said. “Summer camp is the first job for a lot of these staffers, and they gain such tremendous job skills for the future. So they’re missing out on that.”
The hiring process started back in the fall. The months of recruiting, interviewing and job offers that go into putting together the seasonal staff was a factor in having to cancel the summer camps, Herpy said. The decision couldn’t be delayed he said, because a later decision would have made it nearly impossible to hire everyone needed in time for summer. Deciding in early April also gave his team time to turn to planning a virtual camp.
Although it certainly won’t be the same, the virtual camp offers some unique opportunities on its own. It will help fill a void and allow 4-H to maintain some sort of connection with many of North Carolina’s young people.
“This is about a mission to serve our youth,” Herpy said. “This still allows us to fulfill our mission.”
This article was originally published on the NCDA’s In the Field blog.