Agassiz Village has a problem: Over the past year, the Poland summer camp, which caters to low-income children, has seen at least one major funding source dry up. Donations are infrequent and those that do come are a fraction of what they were.

At the same time, demand has increased. In a faltering economy when families are looking for cheap and good rather than expensive and grand, the low-priced, nonprofit camp with its sliding-scale fee system is popular.

But without more outside funding, Agassiz Village has no way to accommodate those campers.

For the first time in its 75-year history, the camp may have to turn away children.

“In this economy, it’s pretty tough,” said Executive Director Lisa Gillis. “Every little loss of a resource has a big impact.”

It’s not the only Maine summer camp feeling the pinch.

Upscale camps are filling fewer spots and fielding more requests for aid. Day camps are having to work harder to stay in the black. Camper programs are fighting to stay afloat.

Even the Libra Foundation, the Portland-based multimillion-dollar charity, is cutting its locally renowned camp scholarships in half.

“We’re just like everybody else,” said foundation President Owen Wells.

In talking to its members, the American Camp Association of New England has found camps in a mix of positions. A few are doing well. Others are struggling. At least one – a New Hampshire adventure camp owned by Boston University – plans to close at the end of the summer because of the economy. Camp Association officials have no idea why some camps are doing OK and others are sinking.

“We’re finding camps all over the place,” said Executive Director Bette Bussel. “It doesn’t matter the type of camp or who’s sponsoring the camp.”

To stay solvent in this weakened economy – or to get solvent – camps are changing the way they do business: offering shorter sessions to attract families who can’t afford to pay for several weeks of camp, extending discount periods, letting parents lock in tuition at last year’s rates or getting creative with payment plans.

Central Maine Community College in Auburn runs 35 day camps for 500 kids each year. It expects enrollment could be down as much as 20 percent this summer. Part of the reason? The Libra Foundation has cut the summer camp money it gives to Lewiston, Portland and Bangor public school students, slashing scholarships from $1,000 per child to $500 because its endowment has lost so much money.

CMCC is a popular option for Lewiston children with Libra money. The college normally charges about $220 for a weeklong camp session. This year, to deal with the Libra Foundation’s cut and diminishing family finances, CMCC will charge $500 for three sessions.

“We’ve adjusted our prices to reflect what’s going on around us,” said David Gonyea, who oversees the camps. “It forces you to be creative.”

Birch Rock Camp, an upscale Waterford summer camp for boys, has tried to be creative as well. The camp, which charges $4,500 for three and a half weeks and $6,500 for a seven-week session, has seen an increase in requests for scholarships, payment plans and tuition breaks. Case by case, it’s tried to be accommodating.

Director Rich Deering expects enrollment to be flat this year.

“We’ve been fortunate that most of our families are willing to make that sacrifice and that commitment, although I know it’s a little bit more of a hurdle than perhaps it has been in years past because the market itself has been such a challenge,” said Deering, who also leads the Maine Youth Camping Foundation. “There’s no question that sending a child to camp are discretionary dollars.”

Back in Poland, Agassiz Village’s isn’t having trouble getting enough campers. Its problem is getting enough outside funding.

Because the camp serves children from throughout New England, it used to get 10 percent of its funding from the United Way of Massachusetts. The United Way has cut all of its funding to the camp.

The camp in 2007 raised $165,000 through its annual fundraising campaign. This year’s drive started on Nov. 1, just about the time the stock market began to plunge. It has raised only $55,000.

To make up the difference, the camp had to increase tuition. It was a move the executive director hated to make.

“Our sliding scale has been bumped up a little, which in these tough times some families can’t even think about,” Gillis said.

The camp continues to seek out corporate donations and grants, but time is running out. With camp scheduled to start in just a few months, families are applying now.

“We’ve never had to turn anybody away,” Gillis said. “This year we’re really working a lot harder, 10 times harder, to try reach that goal. Unfortunately, we may not be able to deliver on that.”


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