Summer Camps Evolve From Afternoon's Amusement to Full-Time Care

Karen E. Klein is a free-lance writer based in Monrovia

Claudia McCarron got tired of hearing the summertime blues. While she and her husband worked full time, her 10-year-old grandson, Bryan Perkins, went to day care during the summer months. But the baby-sitting program bored him and he grumbled when McCarron dropped him off every morning.

"It makes you feel really guilty to hear your child say he doesn't want to go somewhere," said McCarron, who has full custody of Bryan.

In desperation, the 50-year-old secretary began to look for alternatives for summer care that would better suit both Bryan's needs and hers.

McCarron got lucky.

She found that the city of Anaheim's day camp provided a fun-filled program for Bryan and was convenient to her job at the Pan Pacific Hotel. She felt that the then $54 weekly fee was worth it when Bryan started to look forward to the day rather than dread it.

But other families are less fortunate.

While many private and public agencies offer summertime supervision for children, not all include extended-day programs, and most are costly.

One single working mother, who asked not to be identified, confessed that her 8-year-old son sometimes has to stay alone for several hours at a time when school is out. "I worry about it very much," she said. She looked into summer programs but rejected them. "They were so expensive. Of course I couldn't afford them."

With growing numbers of single-parent families and two-career couples whose jobs do not end when school is out, the question of what to do with the children over summer vacation has become a serious one, said Mike Wright, senior recreation supervisor for the city of Santa Ana. During his 23 years with the city, Wright has seen summer recreation programs change radically from providing an occasional afternoon's amusement to nearly full-time baby-sitting.

Planning for many summer programs begins as early as this month, and registration usually starts in April or May, directors said. The camps often fill up quickly.

"Last year, all our playgrounds were full by the first hour on the first day" of registration, said Amy Gartner, recreation coordinator for the city of Orange. "At 7 o'clock there was a line of parents waiting and getting all upset because they couldn't get their children in."

In Santa Ana, overflow day camp sign-ups have prompted plans for a second summer program beginning in 1991. "We fill up every week (of the summer)," said supervisor Wright. Finding safe, quality care that is enriching and affordable is not easy, said Debbie Antolin-Miranda, of the Orange County Department of Education. "It is definitely a problem and it is one that the schools are now starting to look into."

She said the district is especially interested in investigating the summer day-care crunch since studies have shown that children who spend 11 hours or more a week unsupervised are more likely to become involved in gangs, crime and drugs than their peers who are not left alone so often.

"What are working parents supposed to do?" Antolin-Miranda asked. "Unfortunately, we haven't come up with any answers."

For children of low-income families, the summers are particularly troublesome, said Janet Hutchins, program manager for child-care services of the Children's Home Society of Orange County. "Latchkey kids are still a problem, and their numbers are increasing," she said. "There are lots of health and safety issues for children who are unsupervised during the daytime along with the problems of being alone without guidance and without someone to call or relate to."

Hutchins said that although there are some subsidized child-care programs for recipients of state aid, they do not go far enough toward meeting the enormous need for care.

She said her agency gets reports of 8- and 9-year-olds being left to care for several younger siblings. "It's a big responsibility for a child that young to go into an empty house or apartment," she said.

Even older children, particularly the 12- to 15-year-olds, are at risk when left to their own devices for long periods of time.

"They hang out in the malls until 5:30 or 6 p.m. and that's where they start getting into trouble, trying alcohol or drugs," Antolin-Miranda said.

As the need for summer care has grown, more and more agencies are getting into the act. Preschools, private schools, churches, cities and public schools have all begun offering extended-day summer programs for elementary school youth, joining the field once dominated by agencies such as the YMCA and the Boy's Clubs.

For fees ranging from $40 to $150 a week, day camp programs provide a variety of sports, crafts, field trips, games and contests to keep children busy during the long summer months. In general, private day camp programs tend to be the most expensive and city-run ones the most affordable.

Most programs include extensive outings, which sometimes cost extra, taking children to such places as Sea World in San Diego or Universal Studios in Los Angeles.

But questions about the quality of care exist in every program.

Hutchins said that many city recreation programs are not licensed because the state does not consider them to be child-care providers. "I don't know what their criteria are for hiring staff," she said, suggesting that parents should ask for the qualifications of parks and recreation staffers who will be supervising their children.

Linda Ellyson, a Costa Mesa mother of four, said she was unhappy with summer programs that employed high school and college students as counselors. "My 12-year-old got bored and walked home one day. When I got there, they told me she'd never come in and I panicked," Ellyson recalled. "They were more interested in chitchatting than in watching the kids."

Eventually, she let her daughter stay home alone most of one summer, checking in with her frequently by telephone from her office. "I didn't know what it was like to be a latchkey kid because my mom was always home when I was young," Ellyson said. "It was really hard on my kids to suddenly be on their own like that."

Child-care experts suggest that parents check out several programs and compare cost and quality before enrolling their children in summer day care. Also compare the ratio of staff to children, the qualifications of staffers, safety features of the facility both inside and outside, what kind of transportation will be used if field trips are offered, and how much supervision the children get during various activities.

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