ELLSWORTH — It’s hard to find good help these days. Or as is the case for many local businesses, any help at all.
Just ask the Down East Family YMCA, which finds itself with a severe staffing shortage and, in turn, a huge waitlist for a limited number of spots at its popular Camp Discovery program on Webb Pond in Eastbrook.
“Being a day camp, we take care of families and give kids a wonderful summer experience. It’s the role we play and the role we’re proud to play,” said the organization’s CEO, Peter Farragher. “But this year, it’s been a nightmare because of the staffing challenges. It’s heartbreaking.”
The state has strict requirements for the ratio of adult caregivers to children when it comes to child-care options like day camps. Farragher explained that Camp Discovery, at full strength, would have 30 staff members and could support up to 190 children on site. It currently has 13 employees signed on for this summer. With fewer spots available, the waitlist has ballooned to 73 kids and counting.
“As you can see, we need to hire quite a few people,” Farragher said. “And we’re working our tails off to get people in the door. We’ve raised wages. Our camp director Jodie [Burckhard] has been very creative in getting the word out. With the right staff we could accommodate the waitlist, but we didn’t even have this much trouble hiring during COVID.”
Farragher understands that the YMCA is not the only organization having trouble finding employees this summer, but he is concerned about the trickle-down effect this could have on local businesses. A lot of families rely on Camp Discovery as a fun and constructive place for their children to go while they’re at work during the day.
“From our perspective, if we can’t help families have care during the summer then they can’t work,” Farragher said.
Someone who knows firsthand the potential impact this could have on the workforce and is also getting creative when it comes to a solution is Rita Boutaugh.
“I think it’s very important for kids to stay active during the summertime, be around positive people, positive staff members, and do activities that they wouldn’t be able to do if they weren’t at camp,” said Boutaugh, who has enrolled her daughter in summer camp in the past but is currently on the waitlist. “There are a lot of parents that depend on summer camp, and they don’t know what they’re going to do over the summer for child care. They’ll have to work with their jobs, or have their parents watch their kids. A lot of parents are in a really bad spot.”
To help the situation, Boutaugh, who works full time at Shaw’s, decided to stand on the road outside the Moore Center in her free time and hold up a sign to raise awareness of the need.
“I have two more weeks, I’m not going to give up. I’ll be out here rain or shine,” Boutaugh said. “Whether or not they’re able to get more staff I know that at least I was able to do what I could as a parent.”
The YMCA has conducted a few interviews, according to Farragher, but the need is still great. The organization also is pursuing a temporary waiver from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) that would allow the camp to operate under a different staff-to-child ratio requirement.
“Knowing that the safety protocols around the lake and around the camp are already strict, we feel as though we could safely operate the camp under a larger ratio,” Farragher said. “And if we were able to get that waiver, we would be able to accommodate most of the waitlist.”
But Farragher has yet to hear from DHHS, and there is no guarantee that the waiver will be granted. Camp Discovery opens on June 20, with staff orientation taking place on June 16, 17 and 18. Farragher says the camp offers a great opportunity for those who are in, or are looking to be in, the education field.
“A summer camp is a great place to gain experience working with children and build your resume,” Farragher said.