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Pine Tree Camp gets creative, finds alternative ways to give campers summer experience

The 'Pine Tree Camp to You' program delivers themed activity boxes to campers' homes to help them stay connected during the coronavirus pandemic.

ROME, Maine — The grounds of Pine Tree Camp in Rome are quieter than usual this year. On a late Tuesday morning, a sheet of fog sits over wooden cabins, while a boat tied to a dock balances on gentle waves. The paved driveway winding between buildings is quiet, met with the footsteps of just a few staff members. The coronavirus pandemic has changed a lot, but this organization's mission is staying strong.

In the Harold and Bibby Alfond Dining Hall, a dozen or so young adults are hard at work in a procession line, packing up boxes with supplies they're hoping will keep their campers busy this summer -- pine-cones, beads, 'Flat Stanley'-esque figurines of camp leaders. This is the first of six rounds of the 'Pine Tree Camp to You' program -- a response to the pandemic that has changed daily life for so many of us.

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"In March, we realized what was coming down the pike and knew that we kind of had to shift and pivot quickly," director Dawn Willard-Robinson explained to NEWS CENTER Maine. She says that during the initial phase of quarantine, Pine Tree Camp made an effort to connect campers on Facebook and Instagram with virtual campfires and dance parties. Now, that effort has continued into the next season, since a return to camp still didn't seem safe -- but still, that decision was a tough one.

"I just think everybody is feeling super isolated, and I think our campers are even more so -- and I think we knew that most of them are right in that high-risk category for COVID-19," Willard-Robinson said, noting that the campers at Pine Tree Camp come from a range of abilities and ages, but most are immuno-compromised or have other health issues.

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'Pine Tree Camp to You' consists of six different themed weeks for campers -- nature, fitness, music/drama, arts/craft, science, and cooking. For each full week, staff members pack up boxes with videos and materials that are sent to campers' homes for them to learn and have new activities to try. A couple of times a week, campers will join Zoom meetings, monitored by staff members, as a virtual "cabin group", allowing them to connect with other campers. 

"I think for us to go away for summer and sort of shut down would be a great disservice," said Noel Sullivan, the CEO of Pine Tree Society. "We’re staying engaged, and I think -- I know it’s helpful."

Sullivan says he is confident that the adaptation has been positive through his conversation with campers' families. One camper, Peter Maloney, has been going to Pine Tree Camp for a few years and was disappointed to learn this summer's session would not be happening. His mother, Jessica Hamilton-Jones, says the virtual experience is something they're looking forward to, though.

"It makes him feel connected with his friends, which is really important to him," Hamilton-Jones explained. "Having a sense of community -- it's one of the things that Peter loves the most."

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That community means a lot to the program and summer staff members that have been able to help out this year, too. Usually, the number of members totals around 90, but this year, it's limited to 20. 

"We’re bringing all the camp traditions right to your door, so that feels great that camp is still alive in some way," said Hunter Chesley, a program staff member. She has been working at the camp for eight years and says Pine Tree Camp is like her family.

"I love that not only are we providing the opportunity to keep those connections -- they will also making new ones," Katherine LeClair, a summer staff member who was inspired to go into special education teaching after working at Pine Tree Camp, explained. The virtual set-up allows campers who may normally not have met, become acquainted with one another. "I think it's so important during this time."

Above all, the primary goal at the Pine Tree Camp is maintaining safety during its 75th year in business -- all as a means to make sure the mission can continue in the coming years. 

"The camp truly still is here and is going to be here next year -- hopefully as we have experienced it in the past," Sullivan told NEWS CENTER Maine.

To learn more about 'Pine Tree Camp to You', click here

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