Some parents of children with disabilities in Quebec City got a bitter surprise earlier this week, when they learned that the Patro Roc-Amadour day camp wouldn’t be operating this year.
The day camp normally welcomes some 72 teenagers with intellectual disabilities or autism, but it couldn’t find any staff to take care of them.
“This is the first time this has happened in 20 years of existence,” said Julie Leblond, the centre’s director of adapted services.
Leblond said the centre reluctantly broke the news to parents.
One of these parents, Stéphane Desmeules, said it was a blow. His daughter Rose was already registered for the camp this summer. Desmeules works from home and can’t afford to take much time off during the summer.
He said it is hard to accept that his daughter won’t have many opportunities to enjoy her holidays.
“My daughter needs to socialize, to move, to see people,” he said. “She’ll spend part of her summer sitting on a couch, it can harm her physical condition.”
Finding summer camps for children with disabilities is more of a challenge than usual this year, because the labour shortage has forced many camps to reduce the number of spots available — or even cancel their season.
Part of the problem is that these specialized camps require a lot more counsellors than regular camps, because their campers require heightened care.
Camp Cité Joie in Lac Beauport is offering only 40 spots per week instead of the usual 100, and even managing that is a big challenge, said the camp’s director, Denis Savard.
“We have just enough [staff] to start the season,” said Savard — and the camp will be in trouble if anyone resigns or gets sick.
“We’re really up against a wall right now, it’s extremely difficult,” he said, calling the situation unprecedented.
Savard said the camp is still actively recruiting staff, but in the meantime it had to create waiting lists. Hundreds of children are already on that list, he said. The camp had at least 17 requests in just one day last week.
No options for many families
As a result of this staff shortage, many people with disabilities won’t be able to attend camp this summer, according to Savard.
And that’s really difficult for them and their families, he said.
“Often it’s their only holiday for the year. It’s like their own little trip, it’s their moment.”
Olivier Moyat, a father of four, is facing that situation. His 16-year-old son Simon was supposed to attend the Grand Village camp in Lévis, Que., for 10 days, but that’s not possible anymore.
As a result, Moyat will have to stay home with his son while his three other children go on holiday with their mom.
“Normally camp, it’s a time when Simon gets a service that’s adapted for him,” he said. “I’ll have to keep him with me while I work. I work from home, it’s really long, he doesn’t get to let off steam.”
The executive director of Camp Massawippi, Clea Corman, said her camp is a rare opportunity for children with disabilities to be independent of their parents while staying in a safe environment.
“They get to be on a site that’s completely without barriers, everything is adapted for them,” she said.
It’s also a relief for their parents, who are able to get a bit of respite, she said.
Camp Massawippi runs a day camp in Montreal and an overnight camp in the Eastern Townships, offering a total of 560 spots throughout the summer.
Corman said they were able to find enough staff to operate at their normal capacity, but barely. For a while, she thought they would have to cancel.
“We’ve found some kind of creative ways to work around our team structure,” she said.
Ripple effect of pandemic
Savard and Corman blame the staff shortage on the pandemic. Camp counsellors had to find other places to work when COVID-19 forced the camps to shut down.
“We’ve kind of lost that pool of employees who have come back from year to year, so it’s almost as if we’re starting from scratch,” said Corman.
Now, many have chosen not to come back, Savard said.
“When you’ve been making 15, 16, 18, 20 dollars an hour for two years, when you’ve had that kind of salary, for sure, you’ll be less inclined to go back to camps in 2022,” he said.
Camp Massawippi did increase its wages, but still, it struggled. “There isn’t that kind of reflex to work in camps like it was before,” said Corman.
Both she and Savard are hoping to work more closely with schools, CEGEPs and universities for their camps’ recruitment strategies next year.