150 days… hope in reality

Greetings from the Walden (home) office!

We hope you and your family are able to stay safe and find happiness. We are halfway through the school year!

It’s February and we want to give you, as promised, an update on our plans for the upcoming summer.

The short version:

We are still optimistic about camp. However, it is too early to be specific about how camps will need to adapt.

The details that we are providing below are for those families who wish to “dig in” to where our current thinking is at for the summer of 2021.

First, two important points:

  • You deserve a certain level of detail before making a financial commitment and we cannot yet decisively answer any of the big questions. Thus, we will continue to be in touch with you on a regular basis and are delaying our “full refund no questions asked” date to at least April 1.
  • We are prepared for a worst-case scenario. We are all aware of the severity of the pandemic’s second wave. Camps, of course, should not open if pandemic conditions have not improved. While we would be indescribably disappointed, we are equipped to refund every dollar if required.

Having said that, We are devoting our energies towards carving a pathway to the safe opening of camp when community pandemic conditions reach acceptable levels. Because just as we are aware of the devastation that has passed, so too are we aware of the fact that case counts are declining, and Canadian conditions are improving.

And so, we have returned to exactly the same philosophy that we had a year ago. If we DON’T hope and plan, then there CAN’T be camp this summer. If we DO hope and plan, then hopefully there can be Walden this summer.

Our hoping and planning is well underway. Howie, Sari, and I, together with two dozen fellow camp directors have devoted countless hours to the OCA COVID Task Force with and on behalf of hundreds of other Camps who represent 300,000 Ontario children and 10,000 Ontario Camp Staff.

We don’t know anything for certain, but we believe that there are FIVE reasons why we can be more optimistic than last year:

There is an abundance of fact-based studies exploring the interplay of the pandemic, loss of camp, and opportunity for healing. Come summer, there is no doubt in my mind that our four children will need: a place to land… a place that is quiet from the constant stream of negative news… a place where they can feel truly free… to see one another’s smile, to hug each other, to play, to have routines, to engage their senses in the great Ontario outdoors, and be a part of something meaningful. I expect that you hold these same things in mind for your children as well. We believe that an important part of kids’ mental health is the opportunity to create positive and meaningful relationships. This has always been part of our core camp mission. You can learn more about our views on Camp as a place for healing by listening to Sol as a guest on Howie’s recent podcast episode!

While we don’t yet know what specific measures will be required, we do know that our proposal to the Ministry of Health was enthusiastically endorsed by a panel of experts at the Hospital for Sick Children.  Our Task Force has been in direct conversation with Ontario Public Health which is reviewing our proposal.  They have also indicated that the last thing they want is to “steal summer camp again”.

In the summer of 2020, New Brunswick and American overnight camps were successful in creating safe overnight camp experiences.  Also, and in Ontario, sixty Day Camps operated serving close to 4000 campers without any confirmed cases reported.

Our knowledge has grown since a year ago. We’ve seen that several strategies that have proven effective in schools blend nicely with camps. At camp:

  • We are almost always outside and can spend even more time outside.
  • Cabin walls are thin and circulate fresh air inside cabins.
  • We have so much space and can use it to create distance between groups.
  • We call them cabin groups, but they work just like “cohorts”.
  • We are a bubble and are prepared to tighten our bubble even more.

For the same reason that Walden’s founder, Ted Cole, was sent to camp to escape Polio, overnight camps keep children and young adults inside a country bubble and thus away from vulnerable populations and the temptations of super-spreader events. In other words, camp may have risk, but keeping kids at home may be riskier.

While it is too early to talk about WHAT our decisions are, we are clear on HOW we will make decisions.

Here are some things that we will try to keep in focus as we navigate these next 5 months:

For 50 Years, there have been three components to the basic promise we make to our families. We promise to do our best to:

  • Host kids on our beautiful site,
  • Keep kids safe,
  • Help kids make friendships that will last a lifetime!

We do a lot of things at Walden… but some of the things are closer to this mission than others.  For example: we know that we are cancelling Field Trips.  They would be unnecessarily complicated to organize in a COVID summer and while they are fun, they aren’t central to our mission.  Having said that, Canoe Trips, especially for our oldest kids, are profound contributors to our mission.  Our Heads of Trip are giving consideration to how these trips can be executed safely.

The greatest learning from our American counterparts is that there is no single magic intervention that will protect us against COVID transmission at camp.  Rather, the combination of interventions, even if each is applied imperfectly, is collectively effective.  These interventions include: Isolation before,Testing, Screening, A protocol if COVID is detected, Cohorting, Optimizing outside time, Masking, and Bubbling. (IT’S A COMB!)

Society is providing us with so much information that is inconsistent and confusing.  The Summer of 2021 will need to be simpler.  Just like the lessons we learned from Thoreau’s Walden, an everyday-life can be charged with meaning when we focus on the goodness of humankind and the profound lessons that we can learn from nature.

The landscape is ever-changing. For example, one plan is to eat breakfast in two shifts and eat outside all together for lunch and dinner (eating together is absolutely at the core of achieving our mission). We are ready for this plan, but we will also remain ready to go back to our full camp eating all meals together inside if conditions permit.All of our decisions will be made in good faith and using the information available to us at the time that we make them. We will hope to get better and better at this as we go.

There is always some risk sending kids to camp.  So too is there a risk keeping them home and letting them ride their bikes around the block.  Our goal is to create a summer experience where the benefits of camp are so great that parents are enthusiastic about sending their children and the risks so reasonable, that they can trustingly enjoy the time that their children are in our care.

In a normal summer, our staff have a tremendous responsibility. Hopefully, our own children will be staff one day soon. Keeping Walden Staff nourished, well-rested, entertained, and developing skills is an integral part of fulfilling our mission. Requiring our staff to bubble with us is an enormous ask; they have already enthusiastically expressed a willingness to rise to the call. But as you hear about the many things we will be doing to make sure our staff are getting the rest and fun that they deserve, we hope you will nod to yourself and think, “The happier Sol and his team make the staff, the happier my kids will be at camp.”

Young kids bring spirit and cheer. Similarly, our international staff bring special skills and added maturity. We have signed up our usual number of new campers for the different programs that we normally offer. So too have we encouraged our 2020 staff to all reapply. We aren’t just planning to be open, we are planning to be open for all of our Waldeners.

Hope will not make more vaccines available. But just as we saw with the school-opening question in the late summer, when we have hope and are willing to discuss these hopes with our family and friends, it helps us as a society to place a value and a priority on some things over others. It isn’t time to petition the government about camp – please don’t! But continue to hope for camp. We believe it can make a difference.Our staff certainly have HOPE! Every single member of our Leadership Team has expressed determination about returning this summer and a large proportion of our staff have told us the same! The most common sentiments we hear time and time again from them are: “Camp is my light at the end of this dark tunnel. The summer away from Walden made me realize how important it is in my life.”

As with our screen-free policy, the actions of one family affect the whole community. Your family’s behaviour affects other families. Forgive me for conjuring up this over-used cliche but “we are all in this together”. If campers are required to limit their contacts during the last week of school, we will ask the community to support these efforts equally.

We will share with you significant decisions and ask for your continued trust as we make them. We will be building an online Walden COVID “Safety Plan” for parents and staff. This plan will be a “living document” online and will be refined throughout the Spring.

    • The only things we have officially cancelled for 2021 are Field Trips and Intercamp.

    • Yes, we are deep into the planning for screening and testing strategies before, during, and on arrival at camp.

    • Coach Bussing and Visitor’s Day may, but have not yet been, eliminated.

  • But except for these items, we will be planning and ready for all the other facets of the usual Walden Summer.

What camp will feel like this summer if we are allowed to open?

Several months ago, at the end of the “longest summer”, it became clear that 50 years was just the right length of time for our Swim Tower. The bright orange icon that sits at the centre of camp-life at Walden had reached that time when prudence required us to take it down.

We quickly set out to design its replacement. Two options were available: the tower of our dreams… and… well… the quick and easy option.

When I visited the site shortly after, all I could see was what wasn’t there. I saw a “hole” in the waterfront. My immediate reaction was: it just isn’t Walden without that slide in our view. We have to get something up!

Jen, surprisingly, had an opposite reaction – one that, at first, I adamantly rejected, but came round to admire. She said, “I don’t know Sol… I find it quite beautiful actually. No matter where I stand, I can see the other side of the lake… I feel like the docks can breathe a little… the whole thing looks a little lighter. Build that beautiful tower we are dreaming of… but for one summer… especially this summer… it will be ok if the waterfront looks a little different… a little quieter…”

We are looking towards the summer of 2021 just like Jen looked at our waterfront. If we are permitted to open, camp might be slower… simpler… even less flashy… There will be even more campfires… even more time outdoors… Kids will have real and natural fun… We won’t go on field trips… but we will float in the lake… We will HEAL… and maybe we will forget the pandemic for a little while… We will make friends that last a lifetime… and a difference in each other’s lives… if we make it to camp, we will laugh together and probably cry together on the first day at Friday Night Service… but amidst those tears, it’s very possible that this summer could be our best summer yet.

Wait, Plan, Believe, Trust, Hope.

Let’s get these kids to camp.

Sol (on behalf of Sol & Jen and Howie & Sari)

Only 31 days left until camp!

New to Walden? Have a look at our Information Sessions or find out about our Discovery Programs.

Already registered? Make sure to fill out our Spring Registration Form so we have all of your up-to-date information.