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By Michael Boriero - Local Journalism Initiative

With just a couple months to go before campers head over to Camp Massawippi, the bilingual special needs camp for children and adults with physical disabilities could be facing some difficult decisions, as staff recruitment woes threatens to upend a summer full of activities.

Camp Massawippi Executive Director Clea Corman told The Record that they’ve been looking for roughly 80 seasonal staff. The day camp offered in Montreal needs to add about 35 staff members, while the overnight camp in Ayer’s Cliff needs to fill an additional 31 positions.

“The issue is that we’re recruiting in all of the ways that we know how to recruit and we’re not getting very many applicants. There has been a shortage of employees I think in a lot of different industries, but it’s clear that camps are feeling that, as well,” said Corman.

The camp, which has been around in the Eastern Townships for 70 years, according to Corman, offers four programs: overnight camp, day camp, respite camp and virtual camp. They cater to campers between six and 30 years old with a variety of physical limitations.

Corman said the overnight camp, for example, welcomes about 50 kids per week starting on July 3 and ending on Aug. 19. And they always try to offer a staff to camper ratio of 1:1, 1:2 or 1:3. But that might not be the case this year, if they continue to struggle with recruitment.

“If we’re unable to recruit the necessary amount of staff then we will have to say no to some of our campers who have already registered which would be quite heartbreaking given that this is the first year that we’re back to our regular capacity compared to last year,” said Corman.

She told The Record that they shut down completely during the outset of the pandemic. Last year, they were able to open at a limited capacity, admitting about 16 campers per week. But two years filled with uncertainty and government mandated lock downs has taken its toll.

When people come to work at Camp Massawippi during the summer, they often come back the following year because it’s an eye-opening and fulfilling experience, Corman explained, as staff members connect with the campers. However, the worker pool has been depleted.

“It has quite a lasting impact on our staff and our alumni, but we were closed in 2020 and because we were a really reduced, small camp last year, we haven’t had that same employee retention because we had two summers where people had to find other jobs,” she said.

Corman added it feels like the camp is starting from scratch again, trying to find people willing to work at the overnight camp and who are likely to come back for more than one year. It’s a great place for anyone out of high school who wants a different perspective on life, she said.

“We really make sure that everything we do is highly accessible and adapted to the individual capacity of each camper. Our staff get to see through the lens of the camper; how they experience activities and how they get to experience camp in general,” said Corman.

New hires at Camp Massawippi are given 60 hours of training in June, so they aren’t going into the summer without any knowledge of the situation, she explained, adding some of the campers have quite high needs and demand a high level of attention from staff members.

The camp is also actively seeking lifeguards with experience since overnight campers are offered a variety of aquatic activities, including adapted water skiing, sailing, tubing, and canoeing. Campers also participate in arts and crafts, as well as music and dance.

However, if they are unable to find interested applicants, then Corman will be forced to re-evaluate the situation at the end of May. The problem, she speculated, isn’t only due to the worker shortage. It can be difficult to find people willing to live in Ayer’s Cliff all summer.

“I think for overnight camps there’s an extra hurdle there to get people to commit to living on site with the campers and then add to that because we’re an adapted camp not everyone feels comfortable trying something new like this,” Corman told The Record.

Not only can they offer a unique experience, she continued, but they’ve also re-evaluated their structure by increasing wages to acknowledge the commitment of staff members. They’ve even partnered with Elite Student Protection to provide virtual health consultations.

When asked what the camp means to the people who come back every year, Corman said it sort of becomes a second home for everyone. Some of the campers have been coming back year after year for about 20 years. It gives them a chance to flourish and grow together.

“It’s an amazing place for them because they face many obstacles every day in our regular society but when they’re at camp there are no barriers, everything is highly accessible and adapted and allows them to fulfill their potential,” Corman said.

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