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The 12 summer camps run by the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) are struggling this year to accommodate the underprivileged children of Cambridge and Boston in the face of a souring economy and massive social service cuts in state and city budgets, the group’s leaders said.
Just as it was being deluged with an unusually high number of applications from would-be campers this spring, according to PBHA President Ayirini M. Fonseca-Sabune ’04, the organization discovered that municipal budget cuts would hit them in an area where they depend indirectly on public funding—the hiring of junior counselors for their camps. The salaries of these counselors, often former campers themselves, have traditionally been paid for by the municipal governments of Cambridge and Boston.
And PBHA Financial Administrator Barbara Cone said matters have been further complicated by the fact that the foundations on which their summer programs have traditionally relied for major funding proved less generous this year than they have been in the past.
Shaw Natsui ’05, the director of PBHA’s Chinatown Adventure Summer, said that his camp had been unable to hire as many junior counselors as usual this year due to a change in the age requirements imposed by the Boston Youth Fund (BYF) on the junior counselors whose hiring they pay for. Instead of hiring students between the ages of 14 and 17, BYF restricted its hires this year to those between 15 and 17.
Meanwhile, as legislators have shut down or severely restricted public-run summer camps, an influx of new applicants rushed to the PBHA summer programs this season, said Maria Dominguez, the organization’s deputy director.
“We don’t necessarily have the capacity to assume the programs closing around us,” she said.
The overwhelming increase in demand lead to outsized waiting lists, Fonseca-Sabune said—and, eventually, doors slammed closed to children wishing to attend PBHA’s camps.
“After a certain point, camps stopped accepting applications,” she said.
As a result, PBHA officials estimated, at least 300 children had been turned away from PBHA camps this summer—and Dominguez said that was a conservative assessment.
“That’s not counting the phone calls that come in later,” she said.
Searching for Solutions
The dire straits in which PBHA’s summer camps find themselves now did not come entirely as a surprise, said Dominguez.
“What you do is you keep an eye on the state budget,” she said. “We knew in November, December, January that something was going to happen.”
But even with such advance information—and knowledge of how past budget cuts had affected the organization—Dominguez said PBHA could not prevent the damage from the most recent round of cuts.
“I’d say it’s the worst it’s been in quite a few years, maybe a decade,” she said. “Things haven’t been this bad in a while.”
And many of the remedies the organization would normally use in such a situation, Fonseca-Sabune said, have not been available.
For instance, in the past PBHA camps have cross-referenced applicants they cannot take to other area camps.
Cross-referencing, she said, is never a perfect solution, since other camps are often far more expensive than PBHA’s, which charge a flat fee of $75 for an entire summer. But this year, with many neighboring camps shut down by budget cuts, it was often not even an option.
Cone said that their own tight financial situation had not let them simply hire more staffers to deal with a heavier camper load.
“We don’t have the funds to hire a lot of additional staff, or any additional staff,” she said.
Instead, Fonseca-Sabune said she was proud that PBHA had not cut any of its programs, and that student organizers had proved so thrifty.
“The camp directors have been really diligent about keeping expenses low,” she said.
Gene A. Corbin, PBHA’s new executive director, echoed this thought, calling students’ fundraising efforts “an incredible job.”
Since taking office this summer, Corbin said he has tried to reduce the fundraising burden of PBHA student volunteers by cultivating individual donors with disposable income and ties to the University’s tradition of service.
“People associated with the Harvard community believe that Harvard should make a difference in the community, that students’ coursework should intersect with actual engagement and with the problems of the world,” he said.
And Corbin said that PBHA had been especially helped by a grant awarded it by Harvard this year “at the last minute.” He called the $50,000 grant—a sizeable chunk of PBHA’s budget for summer camps, which Fonseca-Sabune said was between $500,000 and $600,000—“some vital help.”
But even with Corbin’s dynamic leadership and Harvard’s generosity, PBHA leaders still said they did not expect the problems surrounding the summer camps to disappear.
Harvard’s grant is a one-time affair, said Fonseca-Sabune, and Corbin said that it was not always easy to find individuals willing to give.
“As the new executive director of PBHA, I’m often amazed at how many people don’t realize that PBHA offers 76 programs including 12 summer camps that impact Cambridge and Boston,” he said. “We have some faithful donors, but I strongly believe there are a lot of people who would support PBHA if they understood the need and all that PBHA is doing.”
And even if PBHA were to receive enough donations to open its summer camps to all applicants, Dominguez said, that would not be an adequate solution to the problems at hand.
“I don’t think PBHA can be a bandaid solution for what the state should be taking responsibility for,” she said. “I don’t think the other programs should be shut down and PBHA should be the solution—I think the other programs should stay open.”
Ultimately, Dominguez says, the only real solution can be a budget which pays more attention to such social services.
“The state has got to prioritize these young people,” she said.
Fonseca-Sabune said she had seen the children who might otherwise have been PBHA campers wandering the streets idly.
“I wonder what they expect the kids to do,” she said.
And Natsui said that he, too, was unsure what would happen to the campers Chinatown Adventure has been unable to enroll.
“It’s hard to keep in touch with some of them because you don’t see them anymore,” he said. “They either spend time at home with extended families, or some might work.”
Fonseca-Sabune said she was “pretty disappointed” that the government had brought about such situations with the new budget.
“Boston and Massachusetts have a strong tradition of supporting youth, and with the budget cuts this year it seems that tradition is falling away,” she said.
And Dominguez, too, expressed dismay at the new state of events.
“Boston has done an amazing job” at funding youth programs, she said. “If those programs are cut in a couple years we’ll go 10 years backwards.”
—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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