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Beloved boys camp calls off 2023 season

Camp Mondamin, set on the shore of Lake Summit, called off its 2023 season but vowed to reopen next year. Camp Mondamin, set on the shore of Lake Summit, called off its 2023 season but vowed to reopen next year.

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s hard to find an industry that was not affected by staffing issues in some way. Summer camps are no exception, and that’s resulted in a heart-wrenching casualty for many families this summer.

One year after it celebrated its 100th season, Camp Mondamin publicly announced April 19 in a post on its Facebook page that it was “canceling all sessions for 2023,” citing a shortage of staff across all areas of the camp.

Director Andrew Bell informed camp parents of the closure in an April 13 email. “Many of you are strong supporters of Mondamin and rely on camp for summer adventure,” he wrote. “This year we are facing a strong challenge. We are severely understaffed for the quality, safe and joyful, experience your son deserves.”

Bell said the staffing issues may have resulted from a missed year of recruitment and training during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A boys summer camp on the banks of Lake Summit founded by Frank Bell Sr. in 1922, Mondamin has been family-run for all of its history. Bell’s children and grandchildren have continued to direct the camp and its sister, Green Cove, a camp for girls that will open as usual this season.

“We know that it hurts our 102-year-old reputation to have to cancel a season,” Andrew Bell wrote in the April 19 Facebook post. “We hope that it was in part balanced by the fact that we did not hold out on shaky hope for so long that parents felt that we left them in the lurch beyond the point of reason.”

Robert Danos, program director at Mondamin, described the staffing shortage as “a kind of a perfect storm.”

“For several months, we could tell that the overall employment scene was significantly different,” he said. “We canceled when we did, in April, once we knew that it was not going to be possible to guarantee to our parents that we would be able to provide them the level of excellence and quality that they expect. We wanted to make sure they had enough time to make alternate plans if they wanted to.”

Danos assures that Mondamin will open in 2024.
“We’re in the process of gathering a whole team of people — current, past and returning — basically looking at retooling our whole system, seeing what best practices are out there that we need to incorporate to start, a year and three months out, to make sure that the relaunch is a big, big success.”

In an April 26 update posted on the Mondamin and Green Cove Facebook page, camp leaders announced that they will be offering their Alumni Camp as they have in the past, and said they are also “working to plan other small-scale events around the theme of moving forward.”

Peers cheer for Mondamin’s comeback

The news that Mondamin had called off a camp season shocked others in the close-knit world of summer camps, many of which have also operated for decades under multigenerational ownership.

Yates Pharr, with his wife Marisa, runs Falling Creek boys camp in Tuxedo. His father attended camp at Mondamin as a child and later became a sailing counselor there. In fact, it was as sailing instructors at Mondamin that Pharr’s parents met.

“I have always held Mondamin in high regard,” he said. “They certainly have been a leader in the industry with traditional summer camps and boys camps.”

“We are cheerleading (for Mondamin), offering whatever we can do to help in their process of, just a small transition,” he added. “This is certainly huge news right now, but I see this as an adjustment just like any group or company can go through, and they are going to be hugely successful again.”

“It was a complete shock,” said Jimboy Miller, the fourth generation owner and director of Camp Greystone, a girls camp also located on Lake Summit. “On the day we heard, we had a head staff meeting going on, and it just really devastated the whole group. It's a very sad thing for camps not to open. The camp directors feel that more intensely than anyone apart from the campers and the staff.”

Miller added: “We've been neighbors with the Bells for generations. Our camp goes back to 1920. So we were here when they started up and have celebrated that relationship for a very long time… We've always supported each other and support them now.”

Staffing is a challenge

Sandi Boyer, executive director of the Asheville-based North Carolina Youth Camp Association, said she is aware of staffing challenges across the state, in line with the broader issues afflicting the job market.

“Since Covid, it has been harder to hire staff,” she said. “Camps are competing against internships and a lot of other things.”

Even so, Boyer said she’s not heard of serious staffing shortages at other camps this year.

“Most camps aren’t reporting hiring issues, or if they are having issues, they are still planning on operating this year,” she said.

A camp’s failing to open for a season is uncommon but not unprecedented.
“We’ve seen other camps have a season that they might not run, but they come back the next season stronger than ever,” Boyer said.
The North Carolina Youth Camp Association has 72 member camps that serve more than 70,000 families, employ 11,000 individuals and generate an estimated economic impact of $639 million a year. Forty-five of the camps operate in Western North Carolina and account for an economic impact of $332 million.

Other local camp directors agreed that hiring has become harder for a variety of reasons — not just Covid.

“Staffing has remained a challenge,” said Pharr, of Falling Creek. “I would even say before the pandemic it became more of a challenge because there are just so many things that one can do in the summer now compared to what it used to be.”

As it became more difficult to find counselors, “we changed our tactics a number of years ago, and it's been a struggle, but at the same time, we've gotten there. We're close right now, we're ahead of what we've been in the last couple of years.”

Miller agreed. “Staffing is much harder,” he said. “Getting the staff to apply is harder, and when the staff get here, supporting them has become harder.”

An April 26 update on Facebook signed by the Mondamin leadership said that Andrew Bell, current director of the camp, will be “moving on to new opportunities,” and that David Bell and Gordon Grant will lead the camp going forward. David Bell the brother of Andrew Bell and Calla Bell Williamson, Green Cove’s director.

David grew up at the camp and served variously as a counselor and assistant director, Mondamin says on its website. He has spent much of the past couple decades working as a teacher in New York City and Taiwan.

Grant has also been involved with Mondamin for years, beginning with his time as a camper and counselor between 1969 and 1975. A lifelong educator, he is currently working at the Asheville PEAK Academy, and has past teaching experience ranging from the Nantahala Outdoor Center to UNC at Chapel Hill.

In their most recent update, camp leaders promised they would open next summer.

“We are already planning our return in 2024 with a full offering of summer programs that are innovative, while still connected to the philosophies and traditions that have made the camp so influential for over a century,” they said.