MERIDEN — The city wants to help its youngest residents return to a sense of normalcy this summer by offering all between the ages of 6 and 16 two weeks of free summer camp.
The city-issued vouchers can be used at the following camps — Boys & Girls Club indoor camp on Lincoln Street or the club’s outdoor Camp Cuno, the YMCA’s Mountain Mist Camp, and Girls Inc.’s camp.
So far, the city has handed out 500 vouchers valued at $350 each and has about $500,000 available. The city will also provide transportation from bus stops designated around the city. There are no income requirements.
“We felt as a city, it was important to make sure our kids were engaged socially again as it’s been a difficult year,” said Mayor Kevin Scarpati. “We want to make it affordable, accessible and we want to give our kids an opportunity they never had.”
Scarpati has made a priority of boosting children’s social and emotional health after a frustrating year of cancellations and pandemic restrictions. Funding for the camp program will come from $31 million in American Rescue Plan monies designated by the federal government for the city. ARP pays the costs of initiatives to recover from the pandemic.
The camps are making modifications to accommodate additional campers, said John Benigni, executive director of the YMCA of Meriden-New Britain-Berlin.
“We’ve hired more counselors and brought in more portable potties,” Benigni said. “We’ll still be social distancing and washing hands.”
The YMCA’s Mountain Mist day camp on High Hill Road has reached up to 600 campers per session, Benigni said. But last year, enrollment dropped due to the pandemic. Children wore masks outside, and needed to be cohorted in groups of 10. Camp regulations are more relaxed this year.
Other local camps also saw enrollment drop last year as the pandemic spread and the U.S. waited for a vaccine. Now with 70 percent of the state’s adults vaccinated, the numbers have fallen significantly leading to more opportunities to reopen businesses and camps.
Two weeks ago, the Pfizer-BioNTech received emergency use authorization for children ages 12 and up. As of last week, more than 57,000 Connecticut adolescents had received a first dose. But with the majority of those within the camping age range unvaccinated, safety practices are still in place. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have advised mask wearing for indoor activities but no mask is required outdoors if social distancing is practiced.
“It’s going to be a busy summer and we’re planning accordingly,” Benigni said. “Making accommodations to make it the best experience for new campers and old. It allows them to be kids, to interact, be social and be outside. It’s a celebration of a new beginning. It’s more like 2019, and what it was like before.”
Michelle Bourdeau, executive director of Girls Inc. is also expecting more participants this summer and is pleased more families will be introduced to the different camps.
“First and foremost, this is providing an opportunity for our families,” Bourdeau said. “After the year everyone has endured, this opportunity is something they deserve. It’s really just about the kids.”
The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation is administering the vouchers. Parents can visit the Liberty Street office from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday to Friday, with proof of residency and receive a voucher. The city pays the non-profit directly per child and the vouchers may be used next year if not used this year, Scarpati said.
Scarpati hopes to continue a scaled-down version of the program next year, he said.