NEWBURYPORT — For many local kids, COVID-19 has put a damper on their usual summer activities and camp plans, but a local nonprofit is pushing hard during the pandemic to provide children with a learning experience in outdoors while ensuring their safety.
Merrohawke is a non-profit organization based in Newburyport that provides children with outdoor learning activities on land, river and sea.
Founded in 2007 by Kate Yeomans and her husband Rob, the organization offers a variety of summer and after-school programs for children ages 3 and up, providing them with hands-on learning experiences both in local woodland areas and marine environments aboard his passenger vessel, the Erica Lee.
Kate Yeomans, who acts as the organization’s executive director, said while normally Merrohawke’s programs serve around 3,000 children each year across all of its programs, this summer has been anything but normal.
She said that since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Merrohawk has “completely redesigned” its programs to accommodate state and federal guidelines, canceling all of its classroom programs in favor of outdoor-only options.
The organization currently only serves 300 children – a 50% reduction from its typical summer numbers – with another 340 on its waiting list – while also reducing its schedule to three woods-based programs and a marine program per week. The organization’s summer staff has also been reduced from 30 to 12 people.
As a result, Merrohawke faces a 40-50% revenue loss this year, in part caused by the cancellation of its spring auction in April, which is usually a major revenue stream. Luckily, Yeomans said, they were able to raise money through an online fundraising campaign that garnered “incredible support” that made this season possible.
But despite the difficulties caused by the coronavirus, Yeomans said she and her staff remained committed to keeping Merrohawke operational.
“We are 1000% committed to doing our best to continue to run our programs,” she said. “Children need nature and they need to spend time outdoors with other children.”
For its BOAT CAMP program, Merrohawke follows government-issued guidelines for summer programs as well as passenger-carrying vessels. The program takes 10 to 15 children a week aboard the Erica Lee with modified schedules for safety reasons. Yeomans said students no longer share fishing rods or other gear on the boat and everything is regularly sanitized, including all surfaces on the boat.
Yeomans said COVID-19 has currently taken center stage among all the other “inherent risks” that come with taking children outside and on a boat, and that she and her staff are constantly “threading the needle” to give kids the most complete camp experience they can while keeping them safe.
“We’re still talking about ticks and lime sickness and all these other risks, but it’s all about COVID-19 now,” she said. “We do our best to protect each other, and we know at all times that if someone got sick, everything would stop for us.”
Yeomans said that upon arriving at camp every morning, the children undergo a COVID-19 screening, during which their temperature is taken and they are asked about any potential symptoms. Most of them wear face coverings during the day, although they are not legally required to do so during outdoor play.
And while most children are adjusting to the new norms of social distancing, she said some of the younger kids couldn’t help but get closer to each other.
“Children have learned the importance of washing their hands and keeping their distance by being with their families – they are quite comfortable with these protocols, but they are getting together and socializing, especially young children,” said said Yeomans. “They’re so happy to be around other kids that being a few feet apart isn’t a problem. When they’re around each other, they usually put on a mask. They adapt. “
Yeomans said staff also wore face coverings when around children, but sometimes removed them remotely to give children a glimpse of their faces.
“Kids like to see their face – it’s a balance…being able to be distanced and show facial expressions,” she said.
Yeomans stressed the importance of children socializing and spending time outdoors, and said she believes time spent at Merrohawke will help prepare students to return to school in the fall.
“It’s a new world we live in, but it will make it easier for them to transition back to school,” she said.
For more information on Merrohawke, visit www.merrohawke.org.
Writer Jack Shea covers Newburyport Town Hall. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 978-961-3154. Follow him on Twitter @iamjackshea.