Making sure kids are safe at camp is serious business.
Teresa Favero’s 7-year-old son left summer camp with an adult who didn’t have permission to take him.
Fortunately, the adult was someone the family knew. But the possible nightmare scenario led them to think more about where their kids would spend their summers.
“You’re leaving your kids with people you’ve never met before, and hoping and praying that they come back to you safe and sound at the end of the day,” says Favero, of Columbia.
Finding the right camp for your child involves much more than learning what they’ll be doing and where. There are other questions that should be asked — questions that will let you know how prepared camps are to keep worst-case scenarios from happening, and how ready they are to respond just in case they do.
Here are four of the most important questions to ask before choosing a camp for your child this summer.
1. Is your camp certified?
In Maryland, a camp certified by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene meets the minimum standards for hiring camp staff, keeping kids safe, and handling injuries and other serious situations.
“They’re very thorough,” says Michael Strawbridge, co-owner of Bayside Summer Camp in Annapolis, of the DHMH certification guidelines.
Many camp directors, however, say they seek to go above and beyond the state minimums to keep campers as safe as possible. Some even strive for more stringent accreditation by the American Camp Association.
“Accreditation ensures that camps have voluntarily met up to 300 health and safety standards in a peer review,” says Tom Rosenberg, the organization’s president and CEO. “It is the best way for parents to know that camps have committed to the safety of their campers and staff.”
The ACA’s standards include counselor-to-camper ratios, background checks, and emergency plans and protocol, among other topics. Camps must provide documentation to prove they meet the standards.
2. What happens if my child gets hurt?
Bruises, bumps, cuts and scrapes are bound to happen. Your child’s camp should be ready to handle those with ease. The camp also should know what to do in case of rare — and far more worrisome —emergencies.
“We have staff-wide CPR and First Aid training,” says Tara Peddicord, spokesperson for Camp Wabanna in Annapolis. “Even those who are not professional rescuers also have those basic skills.”
You’ll want to know what kinds of injuries require contacting parents immediately — after calling 911, that is — and if parents will be notified verbally or in writing by the end of the day for less severe injuries. Camps should also have policies regarding allergies and medications.
Camps tend to have extended orientations and training sessions well before the first day for their entire staff, according to directors. They go over protocol for responding to situations, and some camps practice specific scenarios.
“We had a girl who hit her head while trying to do a handstand in the pool,” says Katy Stratchko, who runs Camp Sport Fit in Bowie. “My counselors are trained to recognize [signs of] concussions. We knew to take her to a dark room, keep totally quiet, call an ambulance right away and then call her parents.”
3. Who will be looking after my kids?
State regulations mandate criminal background checks for all employees. Beyond that, it’s good to know the staff’s professional backgrounds.
“Our program has college students and even high school youth work with us over the summer, but we also like to let parents know that there is a nice blend of teachers and youth development professionals who work with us as well,” says Lana Smith, vice president of youth and family experience for YMCA of Central Maryland. “Young folks are great with kids, but they’ve not had that hands-on experience that teaches them how to be prepared for the unexpected.”
It’s also important to ask about the camper-to-staff ratio. Several camp directors say they seek to do better than the state minimum, which can vary depending on things like the campers’ ages, the size of the group and the type of activity. Doing so allows a staff member to peel off if necessary and help (or discipline) a camper without endangering the others.
Parents should also ask about safety practices for other activities, including ropes courses, horseback riding, and time at the pool or beach. Lifeguards must, of course, be on-site by the water. At many camps, counselors are assigned to provide extra sets of eyes, watching intently when kids are in the water.
“We have a much smaller ratio when they’re at the pool,” says Kelly Bryant, summer camp program director for Indian Creek School in Crownsville. “We are very diligent about watching the children.”
4. What happens in case of bad weather?
Rain can put a damper on summer activities, but warmer temperatures also mean a greater chance of severe weather. Many camps not only have policies in place, but also run drills to ensure staff and campers know where to go in case of severe storms, tornadoes or other dangerous weather.
“We had a tornado warning and were able to quickly secure and account for all our campers in the specified locations of our different buildings,” says Josiah Wolf, camp director for the Annapolis Area Christian School. “Pre-camp training and running drills with our campers for these scenarios enable our staff to act quickly and calmly in the face of danger.”
These are important questions to ask, but other topics not related to safety also matter. Parents should want their camps to be ready for the worst while also focusing on what they do best.
“The only way kids can really have fun and enjoy camp is to have those safety precautions in effect from day one,” says Peddicord.
By David Greisman
Campers at Annapolis Area Christian School. Courtesy photo.
Campers with YMCA of Central Maryland. Courtesy photo.
A camper at Bayside Summer Camp in Annapolis. Courtesy photo.
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