Facing what one official termed "a deep financial hole," the Variety Club of Philadelphia abruptly took steps this week to cut programs so that it can reopen its famous Sunshine Camp in June.

Tomorrow through May 31, all programming at the club's camp property on Potshop Road in Worcester Township, Montgomery County, is canceled, the nonprofit announced in a letter to parents.

The move affects 223 disabled children who attend weekend and after-school sessions to swim, cook, do crafts, learn scuba diving, socialize, canoe, dance, and play sports.

Also, the move at least temporarily displaces Special Olympics athletes who train in the camp's heated pool, officials said, though efforts are afoot to find another pool.

"This decision was not made lightly," board president John Dougherty wrote to the affected families.

He said in the letter released Dec. 11 that the club was "barely meeting payroll," had laid off two staffers, and was contemplating other "painful" cuts in staff, programs, and activities.

He said the club would ramp up fund-raising early next year with an eye to resuming all programs in the fall. "We are deeply sorry," he wrote.

The Variety Club has provided programs since 1935 to disabled children who come from as far away as Reading, parents said.

Some sessions are offered at the suburban site, but others are held in Center City. The cuts don't affect the Philadelphia programs, officials said.

The cancellations give the nonprofit five months to study how it can consolidate operations and emerge as a leaner entity. In the meantime, "the gas tank is on empty," Dougherty wrote.

The club learned in November that it had a $1.2 million to $1.4 million shortfall on a $2 million annual budget when a member of its executive committee was notified by the club's bank, spokesman Jeff Jubelirer said.

Andrew Pack, the club's executive director for 13 years, was fired in November after he failed to tell the board of directors about the financial decline, Jubelirer said. In addition, he said, Pack never authorized payment of more than $400,000 in 2009 payroll taxes to the federal government.

After a two-month audit ending in December, club officials accounted for all money. "There is no criminality," Jubelirer said. Pack, of Philadelphia, could not be reached for comment.

But Dougherty's letter said the Variety Club "did have a financial safeguard in place, [although] it did not operate as planned during this tough economic time."

Jubelirer could not say yesterday what that cushion was, or why it didn't remain in place.

He blamed the club's woes on the downturn in the economy and a three-month delay in getting funding through the state "that we receive from a federal grant for after-school programming."

Variety International is a network of 43 chapters, or "tents," in 13 countries, spokesman Michael P. Huffman said. Philadelphia is Tent 13. Asked if the international would aid the local club, he said, "We will be monitoring the situation with regards to Tent 13, and will continue to play a supporting role in what we have faith will be a vibrant recovery."

The local club is actually two nonprofits - the Variety Club of Philadelphia, with headquarters on Locust Street, and the Variety Club Camp and Development Center for Handicapped Children, on 43 acres in Worcester.

Both entities have made cuts. The club has laid off its after-school director, merging her job with that of another worker, Jubelirer said. The camp has let go its director of operations.

One possibility would be for the club to close its Center City office and move to the suburban site, Jubelirer said, but no such move is planned.

Hardest hit were parents such as George Hunter of Evansburg, Montgomery County, whose son, Kurt, 20, was enrolled for six years in the camp's after-school program. His son is disabled and can't be left alone.

"It kind of surprised us all," Hunter said. "We were scrambling to look for another place, which is hard to find."

Ann Salomon of Whitpain Township said her son, Eric, 13, had attended the camp's Saturday Arts Program since September. Her son has autism.

"He loves it," Salomon said of the program. "He's coming out of his shell. He loves the acting part of it. He's already asked when it's starting up again. This is like a hard pill to swallow."

Each June, the Variety Club Sunshine Camp provides accessible facilities and outdoor fun for hundreds of special-needs youngsters.

Parents who call are being told that registration materials will go out, as planned, in early January, Jubelirer said.

"At this time, we are confident that we will survive this huge challenge," he said.

Contact staff writer Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8232 or bcook@phillynews.com.