A car enters the Down East Family YMCA parking lot in Ellsworth on Monday, June 27. 2022. The Y had to cancel one of its summer day camps for children due to a lack of staffing, forcing 37 children and their families to scramble for other plans for the summer. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Staff at the Down East Family YMCA had to send out a painful announcement to parents Friday, letting them know that one of the Y’s summer camp programs would be ending this week — just a week after it started — due to a lack of staff.

The YMCA has been able to get dozens of workers for other age groups at its Camp Discovery in Eastbrook, as well as lifeguards for its pool in Bucksport. But it couldn’t muster enough people to legally keep its “snappers” program running for 37 children between 5th and 8th grade.

The staffing crisis has become a common problem for  employers across Maine, but it’s one that is acutely felt by summer camps, several Down East camp directors said as the season gets underway this month.

“We just don’t have the personnel to meet the state-mandated ratios,” said Peter Farragher, the YMCA’s CEO. “It’s tough. I’ve been here 24 years, and I’ve never seen a staff challenge like this.”

Before it was called off, the snappers program already had a waiting list of 72 kids — nearly twice the number of kids who were in the program — because it couldn’t accept more campers with its small staff.

The 15 or so counselors who were supposed to be working with the snappers program will be moved to other parts of the camp, which normally has between 130 and 150 campers each summer.

Farragher estimated that the snappers program needed about four to five staff to keep it going, but it was already a herculean effort to fill the YMCA’s other positions.

The camp was able to get creative after the YMCA couldn’t find a school bus driver to fill a $26 an hour position gig to ferry kids from the Moore Community Center in Ellsworth to the camp property. Without anyone who could drive a bus, the YMCA borrowed vans that camp staff could drive from the local school district.

But such a workaround wasn’t possible for the camp staff crunch.

“Our families have been very kind and understanding, but we feel terrible we weren’t able to accommodate their needs,” Farragher said.

The halting of the snappers program and tightened camper counts due to lack of staff have sent ripples elsewhere in Hancock County, an area that already struggled to keep up with the demand for summer camp programs, said John Izenour, the director of operations at Camp Beech Cliff in Mount Desert.

Izenour said his camp, which has almost been able to get back to pre-pandemic staffing levels, received tons of calls from parents who’ve had their summer childcare plans change at the last minute. But he’s had to turn them away because Camp Beech Cliff is full.

The Mount Desert Island YMCA was only able to get the staff it needed the day before its summer camp programs started last week, said CEO Ann Tikkaken.

“We just managed to get enough people,” she said.

But even with an envious full complement of staff, both Beech Cliff and the MDI YMCA worried about the potential for COVID cases, which could cause drastic operation changes at a moment’s notice.

“Our area in general doesn’t have enough spots for camp kids,” Izenour said. “These issues don’t make it any easier.”

The Down East Family YMCA vows to bring back the snappers next year and is working on developing a counselor-in-training program to help bolster its staffing numbers.

“It will return,” Farragher said.