Irena Ukalovic Halsey of Los Altos hopped on a plane with her three children and flew to Croatia last summer.
This year, she's out of frequent flier miles and relying on her husband's income — after he was laid off for seven months — to support the brood.
So Halsey is looking for ways to spend the summer with the kids on the cheap. That includes checking out YMCA camps, city-run camps and summer school programs for Jacob, 7; Megan, 4; and Eva, 2.
She wishes she could send her kids to a country club camp. But she doesn't think she can swing it.
"Those camps are like multi-hundreds of dollars a week," she says.
Instead, she's happy to have found half-day programs at two churches near her home. One is $65 a week.
"Vacation Bible schools," she says. "That's a really great option for the budget-conscious, and it's an inexpensive way for them to connect to God."
School's out in less than three months, and Halsey isn't the only one in this tight economy looking at how to make sure the kids have a fun summer break while dealing with added child care expenses.
She's part of a growing number of parents patching together reasonably priced camp options, farming the kids out to grandparents, organizing complex "play date swaps" and scaling down from fancy trips overseas.
In turn, many camps are trying to accommodate by reducing rates, offering scholarships and working with parents who may have been
"We're tracking higher this year for campership applications," says Judy Hayner, vice president of marketing and communications for the YMCA of Silicon Valley, which comprises 11 branches offering 500 camps, such as Cartoon Camp, Eco Camp, Hip Hop Camp and Tech Adventures.
"We've heard from parents who tell us they can't afford their summer vacation this year, and want to summer camp instead. We know YMCA camps are a very good value for the money."
YMCA camp prices range from $149 a week to $335 a week. And these camps have long offered three-tiered rates for overnight camps. Parents simply pick which level they feel they can afford to pay based on the honor system. Last year, Hayner said, the YMCA gave out $500,000 in camp scholarships. On average, 25,000 kids a week attend Silicon Valley YMCA camps each summer.
"We're expecting the financial aid to be up this year," Hayner says. "And we're budgeting more money for it. We don't want to turn any kids away."
Recognizing the current economic environment, camp organizers at the India Community Center in Milpitas reduced prices by 10 percent on some of the basic cultural camp offerings this year, says spokeswoman Tanuja Bahal.
"We're offering lower prices because we felt parents might need it," Bahal says. "Camp is essentially value-added day care in the summer. Restaurants are offering recession specials. As a service, we thought we'd drop our prices, too."
Last year, 600 children attended camps such as Bollywood Dance Camp, Table Tennis Camp and Hindi Camp at ICC. The basic rate for Cultural Immersion Camp is $200 per week, but there's a multiweek and sibling discount, which can reduce the price to $165 per week.
Even ICC's new History of India Comes Alive Camp, where children take dance, art and history classes at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco will be $250 a week.
Not only are parents' pocketbooks hurting this summer, but camps themselves face a tough economy. Prominently displayed on the American Camp Association's Web site is a tip sheet for camp directors on how to cut costs by rebidding contracts with vendors to secure lower prices, and being more proactive with the community to entice prospective campers, which numbered at least 10 million in 2008.
At the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos, camp this summer still promises to be a blast, Camp Director Andrew Mendes says. But there will be some slight tweaks to programming based on the budget.
"We used to take field trips every day," Mendes says. "Now, we're trying to bring more activities on site."
Noting that campers used to take a cab service to Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose every summer, Mendes says this year, they're asking the animals to come to camp.
That said, the usual camp mainstays, like trips to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and Great America, are still in the mix. But at-home activities also will be more prevalent, Mendes says, as he excitedly described hula dancers coming to the JCC and an upcoming "Wet and Wild" day, where a snow machine will make powdery flakes in the middle of the summer.
In addition, the Jewish community is making available more money for financial aid this summer. In response to the economic crisis, earlier this month, the Jim Joseph Foundation donated $3.5 million to share among the Jewish Federations in Silicon Valley, San Francisco and the East Bay to fund children who want to attend Jewish overnight camps and Jewish day schools.
Lauren Smith is sending her daughters, Arielle, 9, and Jordan, 5, to camp at the Los Gatos JCC.
"But instead of going for four weeks like they did last year, they're going for two, maybe three weeks this year," Smith says.
Luckily for the Smith family, their job status has been stable, and they likely won't need scholarships. Lauren Smith works at the JCC preschool, and her husband, Joshua, is a lawyer at Yahoo.
Still, the entire global recession has caused the Smiths to re-evaluate spending. Aside from a shortened camp experience, the family might take a one-week vacation together and spend the rest of the time making field trips around the Bay Area.
"We're re-prioritizing where we spend our money," Smith says. "We just don't want to spend any more than we have to. The economy has impacted the way we think."
Contact Lisa Fernandez at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 920-5002.
Tips for finding a good camp buy
When looking for camps or fun experiences for your family this summer, here are some tips on how to make your selection more economical:
1. Often, camps run by faith-based groups such as churches, city recreation and parks departments, and YMCAs are reasonably priced. Check with these types of camps first.
2. Inquire about "camperships,— which are full or partial scholarships for children to attend camp. Most camps offer some type of aid. And often, camps know of foundations at which to apply for additional aid. Some applications are complicated and require a lot of personal tax information; others are based on the honor system. For instance, the Jim Joseph Foundation this month donated $3.5 million to share among the Jewish Federations in Silicon Valley, San Francisco and the East Bay to fund children who want to attend Jewish camps and Jewish day schools.
3. Organize "playdate swaps." If you agree to take several of your friends" children for one week, they can take yours. If you plan right and get enough parents involved, you may be able to get three or four weeks of free childcare by volunteering one week of being a nanny yourself.
4. Scour the Internet and talk to friends to find cheap travel deals. One Los Gatos family is heading to Palm Springs for a week, where they found a deal at a hotel for $25 a night.
5. Don"t forget about the many free or inexpensive activities to do in your own "backyard." Libraries, beaches and downtown walking trips in San Francisco are just some of the ideas.
"” Lisa Fernandez, Mercury News
Source: Mercury News reporting