Just after the holiday season, parents in Philadelphia are treated to even more panic, dread, and wallet drain.

In the last two weeks, my Facebook has lit up with parents realizing once again it is Summer Camp Season. No, not the season when kids go to camp, but the one when parents of kids between the ages of 5 and 14 begin shelling out mortgage-size payments so that our children will have a place to go this summer.

There are plenty of summer camp options out there, including camps at the Academy of Natural Sciences and InMovement Gymnastics as well as Miquon School’s beloved forest camp.

But arguably, there are still not enough camps to meet the demand of families in Philadelphia. These camps sell out really quickly. Like, scary quickly.

Thus the January parent panic.

Often a single camp doesn’t cover all the weeks the School District of Philadelphia is closed, which leaves parents to organize an intricate puzzle of care, trying to limit using their own vacation days from work. (Because after all, during the school year, parents also need to figure out child care over holiday breaks and professional development days and days when kids come home with strep throat and earaches and other typical kid illnesses.) In a modern world, without the free labor of stay-at-home moms or retired nearby grandparents, countless parents like myself who work full time are desperate for safe and affordable summer care.

The cost of camps ranges from bearable to more than the cost of infant day care per month. A local museum, for example, charges $475 for one week of camp, including “before” and “after” care, which would extend the coverage from 8 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., just barely enough to cover a typical workday and commute for most parents. (Standard camp hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.) If you’re a parent in need of care for every week of summer break (11 weeks), that adds up fast.

Like many other public school parents in Philadelphia, I cling to the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation six-week summer camps. These camps come at a somewhat affordable price tag for many working and middle-class families and they are right in our own neighborhoods. Parks and Rec camps include theater programs, creative arts, swimming, trips to amusement parks, and sports as options. Each summer day at our local rec center camp my children, along with many of their neighbors and classmates, get to swim at the nearby public pool, play soccer, and do arts and crafts. In short, they have a classic and memorable summer experience.

Milo (left) poses with artwork he made at Parks and Rec camp. Juniper (right) enjoys daily swimming during her time at day camp.
Dena Ferrara Driscoll
Milo (left) poses with artwork he made at Parks and Rec camp. Juniper (right) enjoys daily swimming during her time at day camp.

Parks and Rec camps are beloved by my children and others across the city. But they also often come with enormous wait lists (much like the after-school programs run at these same rec centers). Recently, I spoke with a single-parent friend who moved back to Philadelphia not long ago. She put her child on a one-year to two-year waiting list for city-supported after-school and summer camp. One parent of a 4-year-old told me that he has a calendar reminder to register for after-care and summer camp 18 months before his child will even be old enough to go to his neighborhood public school.

“It’s like people desperately want really good public services,” remarked that same dad of the 4-year-old.

As the City of Philadelphia continues to invest in the physical buildings that house these programs through its Rebuild initiative, I call on it to similarly invest in and expand the staff of our Parks and Rec centers throughout the city to accommodate families who need more after-school and summer camp options. As a city, we must recognize that public spaces and public services are key to allowing families to thrive and grow here.

Mayor Kenney, please invest in the growth of Philadelphia’s children with more investment in our beloved after-care and summer camp programs.

Dena Ferrara Driscoll is a mother of two who lives in South Philadelphia and works in nonprofit communications and development.