It's a bright summer afternoon and dozens of kids stand beside Lake Barlow, the main draw at YMCA's Camp Manitou-Lin outside Middleville.
"Jump in, chicken," a tow-headed boy shouts to timid campers at the shore. A few well-placed splashes, screams and the "chickens" race into the water towards their tormentor.
Everyone laughs amid splashing and trash talk at the 160-acre camp south of Grand Rapids.
Welcome to summer camp, the time-honored rite of passage for nearly 11 million kids in the United States each summer who are temporary residents at some 12,000 day and overnight camps. And metro Grand Rapids has some of the best camps in the state of Michigan, local directors say, just the kind of places that can provide a short, but positive impact on any youth -- particularly one living in a harsh city environment or dealing with a disability.
Jim Guilfoyle says it can be a life-changing experience for urban kids who've never before seen browsing deer, held a fishing pole or ventured into Lake Michigan.
"Think of the summer camp experience: the camp fires, running games, bike riding, and swimming," says Guilfoyle, executive director of 89-year-old Camp Blodgett in Ottawa County. "We have a swimming pool and the kids are in there two to three times a day."
An army of campers
Of the more than 2,400 summer camps accredited by the American Camp Association, 77 are in Michigan. The Grand Rapids Community Foundation hosts a portal website that has information about many of the summer camps operating in West Michigan. Prices for summer camps range anywhere between $100 to more than $800 a week, though an increasing number of camps are offering discounts, scholarships and payment plans.
A survey conducted by the association shows enrollment at summer camps in 2009 was down nationally from the previous year due to economic conditions. But despite Michigan's lagging economy, attendance at summer camps remains strong, camp officials say. Families not able to afford a more elaborate summer vacation may end up sending the kids to camp, says Dennis VanKampen, public relations director for Michigan's American Camp Association board.
Myriad associations are working to make this possible, offering either tuition assistance or a sliding fee scale.
At Camp Henry, families experiencing financial hardship are offered a sliding fee based on income and the number of kids per family attending. Camp Henry, located on Kimball Lake in Newaygo, annually accommodates about 1,300 campers ages 7-17.
Camp Miniwanca in Oceana Country saw a 25 percent increase in scholarship requests for the facility on Stony Lake, one of two camps run by the American Youth Foundation. It expects to serve between 600 and 700 campers this summer.
The story is similar at Camp Pendalouan, run by the YMCA in Muskegon, with more requests for scholarships coming in, says camp director Bruce Spoelman.
Other familiar camps for Grand Rapids area kids include Camp Tall Turf in Walkerville, Indian Trails Camp in Grand Rapids, Little Pine Island Camp in Comstock Park, Camp Roger in Rockford and 11 camps run by the YMCA.
A camp for every interest
It is hard to pigeon-hole a typical camp experience. The most iconic part of camp, of course, is swimming during the day and swapping stories around a campfire at night.
But there now are day camps, overnight camps, extended stay camps, Bible camps, golf camps, scout camps, art camps, music camps, even academic camps. Yes, academics. Most kids experience some form of brain drain during summer vacation. But participation in camp helps stem the learning loss, according to the National Summer Learning Association.
True enough, says Guilfoyle, the Camp Blodgett director.
"It is important to keep them active and learning during the summer – getting them to read and write; keeping the brain charged to minimize summer learning loss," he says. "We don't want them to fall behind and lose ground."
The estimated 500 kids attending his camp this summer are expected to keep a daily journal, part of its 'Mind Calisthenics,' Guilfoyle says. "It is five minutes of writing to keep them thinking and in the right frame of mind."
Are you interested in playing piano or violin beneath a canopy of oaks? Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Muskegon County is the place to be.
In addition to serving traditional campers, Camp Manitou-Lin also has programs for campers with specialized needs, including young burn survivors who arrived last week. Seventy kids treated at burn centers in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor headed out Manitou-Lin on Briggs Road, lead by a parade that started at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids.
"These burn survivors will attend a unique camp that helps then cope with the healing process," says Bruce Rossman, spokesman for Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids. "The burn survivors will play, heal, grow and support each other in a traditional camp setting."
Before you send them packing
Before sending your child to camp, child care experts recommend asking lots of questions, including: How safe is the camp? What is the ratio of campers to staff and does staff have to meet minimum qualifications to work there? Are all swimming areas supervised? Is there a balance between indoor and outdoor activity? What plans are in place in case of severe weather? What is protocol for a medical emergency?
There also are ground rules to ensure your child has a safe experience. Send them off with sunscreen and insect repellent. Make sure camp staff know of any allergies or medications your child is taking. Let staff members know if your child is a non-willing participant in summer camp or prone to being home sick.
"One of the greatest things about camp is the change in kids who say they're only here because their parents made them go," Guilfoyle says. "We've had many conversions. I remember a kid who says he was too old to come back next year, but wanted to return as a senior camper. And this was a kid we couldn't get on the bus. Camp changes kids for the better."
Former Home & Garden Editor for The Grand Rapids Press, John Hogan is a journalist with more than two decades of professional experience covering everything from homicides to hostas.
Rick Meyering Camp Director
Camper Lyndale Jackson
Campers Jada White, Aniah McLeod, Arielle Matthews, Kylan Tette-Harris
Campers Top Row: Natyia Kemp, Marissa VanSuiliche, Jennifer Pegg,
Bottom Row: Leigha Penha, Deshonae Luster
Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved