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It’s summer camp registration season. For many Calgary parents, the race — and anxiety — is on

For single mom Tara Parlee of Calgary, registering her two young kids for summer camps for the first time was like picking up a second full-time job.

But like many other working parents, it’s her only choice for child care when school is out.

The trying times of summer camp registration season mean waking up at the crack of dawn to compete for spots against hundreds of other parents who are doing the exact same thing.

“As soon as it opens, it’s already full. And then by the time I get one kid registered, when I refresh to add my other kid, everything is full. So then I can’t do it, and I have to take the other kid out,” said Parlee.

Rinse and repeat.

Parlee said the process isn’t nearly as easy as finding a program her kids like and signing up. In reality, the mental work begins well before registrations open.

“It took me like a good month of every day just trying to see what’s out there and reaching out to people and doing extra footwork as far as going to mom groups and trying to get references,” she said.

Kids playing game outdoors
Kids play a game to kick start their day at a summer camp. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

For some, the stress and planning begins as early as the winter.

“It’s a frustrating process. It shouldn’t be this difficult for parents.”

She isn’t alone. It’s a popular topic of conversation among parents, and the barriers are even more intense if they’re on a budget or have a strict work schedule. And while summer camp operators are doing what they can to manage demand, competition remains high for more popular and affordable camps.

‘It costs a fortune’

Catherine Anderson understands the struggle as a mom, and as a hub manager at Trellis Society in Renfrew.

That location opened up summer camp registrations last month, and it’s already 80 per cent full — even after adding 15 new spots this year.

As is the case with many other organizations, families that participate in their other year-round programs, like preschool or kinder-care, get first dibs with early registration.

“So we almost fill up just based on that,” said Anderson.

She said her team ensures to communicate with families in advance, since she knows how anxiety-inducing the process can be.

“You have to be on it, and it costs a fortune. And it’s also not a good time [for big expenditures]. Like March isn’t the best time to be shovelling out what amounts to a few thousand dollars for camp, right? But you have to be prepared for summer because if you’re a working parent, it’s your only option,” she said.

“I’ve had it in the past where I signed [my daughter] up for a camp and they didn’t have enough registrants, or something happened with their staffing, and they shut it down and just refunded the money. But at that point, there’s nowhere else for you to go. So you’re probably booking the week off.”

With the rising cost of living, Anderson said she’s found more families are seeking subsidies and grants — which her organization does offer for eligible families.

They also offer payment plans with families, and their Bowness location offers different tiers of pricing for families struggling with costs.

Get on waitlists, ask for subsidies

Ellen Percival is the publisher of Calgary’s Child Magazine, which has been around for 30 years.

She said demand has risen through the years — but there are also many more camps to meet that demand today.

Still, she has noticed some changes.

“It feels like parents are registering earlier and earlier, and it also feels like camps are offering earlier and earlier.”

But she has some tips to help. For parents struggling to find a spot, she said she recommends having many options on the table and getting kids on waitlists. And for families on a budget, she recommends considering community camps and asking operators for subsidies.

Percival aims to relieve some of the stress by publishing an annual list of summer camps in Calgary’s Child Magazine. Its upcoming edition — including more than 32 pages of camps — will be available on April 24.

“We are so spoiled for choices.… You just have to do your homework,” said Percival.

Kids playing soccer
Kids playing soccer at a summer camp in Calgary. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Meanwhile, at the YMCA Calgary, vice-president of operations Nick Wiggins said there is still space available for families who are looking, and they never turn families away on financial grounds.

“We’re at, across the board, about a 70 per cent fill rate at the moment, which is typical for this time of year. We have spaces in almost every program,” said Wiggins.

“As long as you approach it with some flexibility, I’m pretty confident that you will be able to find some space.”

As for Parlee, she did find a spot at a community centre for both of her kids, at $1,200 a month per kid before subsidies.

While she feels like she did settle, she said she’s confident the process will be easier for her next year.

“As long as I like this place, I’m just going to try to put them in the same place every year.”

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