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Worried About Paying for Summer Camp? Try This Fun, Affordable Alternative

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Young brother and sister swimming in a pool
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The end of the school year brings joy to children but dread to working parents left to arrange — and pay for — child care over the summer.

Summer camp doesn’t come cheap. Parents can end up doling out thousands of dollars to occupy their children’s time while school is out.

However, some families find a financial break in organizing their own summer camp co-operatives.

In a cooperative, or co-op, a group of parents collectively provide child care for their children over the summer. As Care.com puts it, parents will generally take turns watching each other’s children, supervising activities similar to what kids might experience at traditional summer camps.

This informal arrangement keeps the summer fun without the summer-camp prices.

Families can customize their co-op to fit whatever works best for them. Some groups need only a week or two of camp, while others need the camp to last all summer. Some parents will restrict the co-op to close friends or family members, while others are open to setting up an arrangement with neighbors or co-workers they know only casually.

There’s no one-size-fits-all plan for forming a summer camp co-op. Here’s how one set of parents made it work for them.

Taking Summer Camp Into Their Own Hands

Olivia Delgado, 5, plays at a playground during co-op camp in Chestnut Ridge, New York, in 2012.
Olivia Delgado, 5, plays at a playground during co-op camp in Chestnut Ridge, New York, in 2012. Olivia's mother, Vicki Larson, helped organize the co-op camp with friends and neighbors. Photo courtesy of Vicki Larson

About six years ago, a group of friends and neighbors in Rockland County, New York, decided to develop their own summer-camp co-op.

“We found ourselves looking at the summer — 12 or 13 weeks of no school — and the cost of camp being unaffordable for most of us for that length of time,” said Vicki Larson, one of the parents who organized the camp.

Her daughter was 5 when the group started the first year of the co-op in 2012. They continued the camp for three summers, ending in 2014.

Larson said the original idea was to get about a dozen families to participate, alternating houses each week. The host parents would have taken a week off work to lead the camp. But that wasn’t ideal for everybody, so instead they ended up hiring their own camp counselors: parents, college students and teachers on summer break.

Larson said parents took turns hosting the camp in their homes, and the kids also spent time in neighborhood parks and at other local venues. Like a traditional summer camp, the children spent time doing arts and crafts, playing outside and exploring nature.

“One week, they would go to the pool every day,” said Adam Gorlovitzki, another parent organizer whose children were 4 and 5 that first summer. “One week they would go mountain hiking.”

Most of the children attended the same school, although some were friends who just lived in the same area. They ranged from preschoolers to early elementary school students.

Gorlovitzki said it was great for the kids, because they already had friends in the camp, and favorable for the parents because they got to select the teachers and could weigh in on camp activities.

Summertime Savings

A group of children practice yoga at co-op camp in Chestnut Ridge, New York, in 2012.
A group of children practice yoga at co-op camp in Chestnut Ridge, New York, in 2012. Photo courtesy of Vicki Larson

Besides getting to control how your summer camp is run, one huge benefit of setting up a co-op is the financial savings.

Larson recalled parents paying about $225 a week, which was significantly cheaper than what some traditional summer camps were charging back then.

“On average at that time, it was easily like $500 a week that camps would charge you,” said Leslie Laboriel, another of the camp’s organizers, whose son turned 4 that first summer. “So we cut the costs in half.”

The money they collected went to pay the teachers and cover the cost of food and supplies. The parents handling the administrative duties worked as unpaid volunteers.

“There’s no overhead here, there’s no insurance, so it cut a lot of the costs,” Gorlovitzki said.

Laboriel said the host families paid little to no camp fees when the group was using their homes. Parents would pay for each week of camp via online banking to make the process stress free.

“It allowed them to not to have to worry about putting a check in the mail or remembering that they needed to drop a check off,” Laboriel said. “And then we didn’t have to worry about dealing with constantly making deposits at the bank. It worked out well and was nice and convenient for all of us.”

Happy Campers

Though the summer camp co-op disbanded after three years as the kids got a bit older and the group started growing larger than initially anticipated, Larson, Gorlovitzki and Laboriel all said they’d recommend this type of summer setup to other parents.

“It was a huge help,” Larson said, referring to the financial benefit of organizing the camp with her friends. “And it was great for the kids. They loved it.”

For parents considering starting a summer camp co-op of their own, she says to put a lot of thought into the locations where the camp will be held. The places should be child-friendly, the hosts must be comfortable opening up their homes and there needs to be enough space to accommodate all the children, Larson said.

“Kids need a variety of activities during the day, so you want to make sure the space lends itself to [that],” she said.

“It makes sense to not commit to one location if it’s someone’s home because you really are kind of taking over their space,” Laboriel added. “It’s nice to be able to move [the camp] around a little bit to give [host parents] the opportunity to have their homes back.”

Larson said it’s important to get all the parents in the group to sign documents absolving the host family and teacher of liability should any incidents arise.

Definitely have parents sign a waiver,” she said. “It’s not ironclad, but it gives you a little sense of security that if something happens, you’re not going to get sued.”

Setting up a summer camp co-op involves advance planning. Larson suggests parents identify who is comfortable with doing the administrative tasks, organizing the spreadsheets and figuring out the rates.

In planning sessions, organizers should think about how they’d like to structure the camp, what types of activities they want the kids to do, who will handle communicating with all the parents and how they’d like to deal with finances without making it cumbersome, Laboriel recommends.

Gorlovitzki’s advice for those who are reluctant to create a summer camp co-op is to start small with a few families and build from there.

“Don’t be afraid. Just go with it,” he said. “Things may not be perfect the first day, but you learn as you go.”

Nicole Dow is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She enjoys writing about parenting and money.

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