MISSOULA - This year, summer camps run through Missoula’s Parks and Recreation are as popular as ever, with kids and parents.
The department is currently hosting around 300 kids a week through its array of summer camps.
Kids can choose from activities ranging from overnight rafting trips to arts and crafts in the park.
Recreation program manager Meg Whicher said she works hard to stay up to date on what kids are interested in.
“We talk to a lot of kids and spend a lot of time with kids to find out what they’re into,” said Whicher. “Me personally, I don’t know how to play dungeons and dragons, but it’s huge right now.”
New this year, kids can learn the essential survival skills of archery or whittling — or choose to travel around Montana learning how to skateboard at six unique parks around the state.
Whicher hopes that with the vast array of different summer camp offerings, every kid can find something they are interested in.
Along with providing summer fun for kids, the camps provide parents with childcare while their kids aren’t in school.
Whicher also oversees after-school programs during the spring and fall and said the need for childcare is huge throughout the year.
Whether it be a single parent or a situation where both parents work, families across Missoula are in need of childcare.
Since Whicher began her role as recreation program manager, the summer camp program has grown tremendously.
A decade ago, it saw 200 to 300 kids a year. It now sees that number every week. Whicher said the growth of the summer camp program has been in response to the needs of the community.
“They (parents) know that there’s a place where their kid feels loved and accepted, so they can go work,” said Whicher. “I think that’s been deeply impactful for our community.”
Whicher said more kids have been able to access camp this year thanks to funding available to lower-income families.
A camp called Reach More is also available, offering lower staff ratios and leaders with specific training to make camp easier for kids with disabilities.
Although eight-to-15 camps are offered every week during the summer, there still weren’t enough openings for all kids who wanted to attend a summer camp, the department said.
Registration for summer camps began in early April and filled up the same day registration became available.
“I know that process is frustrating and anxiety-producing for parents, and we’ve worked to provide more and more and more each year,” said Whicher.
The summer camp program is limited by the number of staff and sufficient transportation.
In years past, Parks and Rec has hired summer visitors to Missoula, but Whicher said the current housing crisis and high cost of living has shrunk that potential pool of employees.
Camps that take place in McCormick Park will generally have one staff member for every 10 kids, whereas adventure camps that involve activities like rock climbing or mountain biking typically warrant a one-to-six staff ratio.
Whicher is passionate about the impact of the program on the lives of children and its effectiveness in creating community and teaching kids how to get along with one another.
“It's really unique and awesome for a municipal, public parks and recreation program to have as extensive of offerings as we do,” said Whicher.
Whicher believes the city’s extensive summer camp program exposes children to a role model outside of the home, provides them with engaging opportunities to learn and grow, and helps to alleviate many parents’ need for childcare.