Campers attend Camp Paivika virtually

Jun 18, 2020 | Crestline, Recreation & Entertainment

By Mary-Justine Lanyon

For the first time in its 73 years of operation, the grounds at Camp Paivika in Crestline are quiet this summer. Due to COVID-19, the camp is like a ghost town.

“We came to the decision early,” said Kelly Kunsek, the camp’s director, “that it would not be possible for us to operate camp this year.

“Our population is among the most vulnerable. A lot of our campers have a higher incidence of respiratory and heart issues,” she told members of the Mountain Sunrise Rotary Club at their June 10 Zoom meeting.

Kunsek added that they came to realize that the level of care required by their campers would make social distancing all but impossible. In addition to many needing a great deal of personal care – lifting, bathing, dressing, feeding – some do not have the capability to understand why social distancing is necessary.

The camp, which was started in 1947, usually serves children from the age of 9 through adults with a range of disabilities. Their mission, Kunsek said, “is to help individuals with disabilities live their best lives and provide support to them and their families to do that.”

The campers enjoy stays of five to nine nights. During their stays they can swim, go horseback riding, do arts and crafts and even camp out at night.

The ironic and frustrating thing, Kunsek said, is this year they had their highest enrollment to date – 440 campers.

“Then COVID-19 came along. It was not an easy decision to make to close the camp but it was truly the only decision that could be made,” she said.

But rather than leave all those campers disappointed, Kunsek got to work on a new program – Camp Paivika at Home. This Zoom-based program began on June 8 and will continue all summer with live Zoom sessions on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

In addition, some of the staff members have recorded videos that campers can access at any time on the camp’s YouTube channel.

Camp Paivika traditionally draws staff members from all over the world. One counselor has recorded a tour of his hometown – Rome. Another is taking the campers out on the reef at night in Hawaii.

At camp, Kunsek and other staff members will take the campers to see the horses and visit other areas of the camp. The counselors will be posting videos on YouTube every week, singing silly songs and visiting with the campers. “This kind of interaction is really important for the campers,” Kunsek said.

“We’re looking for lemonade in these lemons,” she added. Rather than just getting to enjoy camp for a week, campers can now interact with their counselors and friends all summer long – at no cost to them.

Before Camp Paivika at Home started, each registered camper received a camp T-shirt, a journal and other camp goodies. “They are posting photos on Facebook of themselves wearing their T-shirts,” Kunsek said.

She is sensitive to the campers who may not have Internet access and is reaching out to them through the mail. She also knows of a handful of adult campers who live alone and are “really feeling the isolation. We call them to keep them engaged.”

On the opening day of Camp Paivika at Home, 100 campers signed on in the morning, with another 95 in the afternoon. “They were so excited,” Kunsek said. “We had an activity planned but never got to it because they were so busy chatting.”

That is a lot of people to manage at one time, she noted, so volunteers are going through the screens, making sure everyone is OK. Kunsek is thinking of having two sessions at once so she and the counselors can have more interaction with the campers.

“I was impressed with how well they navigate Zoom,” Kunsek said, adding she knows they have been using it for their school or day programs. “This is a new level of independence for them.”

She is now setting up chat groups by cabin for the campers. Many of them have been attending Camp Paivika for years and have made friends they only see at camp. Through these smaller groups, the campers will be able to interact with their counselors and friends.

Kunsek said she got amazing feedback from the first day of virtual camp. She heard from two mothers of young adults with autism.

She told the Rotarians about one young man who is nonverbal. “His mom told me that, after the Zoom camp meeting, he didn’t stop smiling all day.

She hadn’t seen that for some time.” Another mother shared with Kunsek that her daughter had been having a difficult day. “After Zoom, her attitude changed.

“I know this won’t be the same as camp but it feels right,” Kunsek said.
She is hoping that this virtual program will become an addition to what they do once they can have actual camp again. “We would like to keep engaging with the campers throughout the year – maybe with monthly get-togethers.”

In addition, Kunsek said, there often are campers who cannot attend because they had to have surgery. And then there are those who try to sign up too late and are on the wait list. This virtual camp would be a way to engage with them.

“I’m concerned how this pandemic is affecting this population,” Kunsek said. “Many are even more isolated than we are because of the challenges they face. They may not be able to wear a mask and go to the store with their parents. They may not understand social distancing. They have a lack of understanding of why everything has changed – why can’t I go to my day program, see my friends, go to camp?

“We are doing everything we can to provide some relief.”



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