Special needs summer camp may have to turn away campers due to staff shortage

True Friends summer camp says it might have to turn away special needs campers this summer due to a staff shortage. 

A Minnesota camp that serves people with disabilities from around the world is cutting back this year. This summer, True Friends could be down from its normal 2,000 campers to just 600 because of a struggle to find people to work.

True Friends President & CEO John Leblanc said families can expect many camp favorites like s’mores, fishing, hiking and mud pits.

"It's basically my sanity break," parent Polly Schmeling said about what True Friends means to her. "With kids with special needs, it’s hard to find camps that will accept them."

The organization has camps near Maple Lake, Annandale, Eden Prairie and Bemidji. Its organizers believe the hiring problems may be caused, in part, by uncertainty from the pandemic.

"Hiring the volume of staff that we need both in the summer and year-round, it’s getting challenging," Leblanc explained. His camps recruit talented caretakers from Columbia, Ireland, United Kingdom, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Slovakia, France, Ukraine and the Dominican Republic.

"In the summer we hire almost 300 people," Leblanc said.

In a normal year that hiring would be done by mid-May, but in 2021 the camp is only now approaching its halfway mark.

"There’s just not enough people," Leblanc said.

Now with limited staff, the camp has to decide which campers can still come, and who will have to stay home. "It’s very hard," Leblanc said.

True Friends is not alone either. Bloomington Parks and Recreation has seen the same serious challenges with hiring. It had to cancel Camp Kota because of a "domino effect" caused by the pandemic.

"It’s a crisis now, and it’s only going to get worse," Leblanc said. For each seasonal employee that True Friends brings on, the camp is able to bring in an additional 10 to 30 campers. Click here to learn more about working with True Friends.