Everyone can agree that Camp Quinebarge did not go as planned.
The rustic overnight camp abruptly shut down earlier this month after just six days. Camp directors informed parents, who had shelled out $3,400 for two weeks, that they needed to pick up their children the next morning, following a “summer of challenges” capped off by delays from the camp’s food supplier that made continuing untenable.
The decision to close the 85-year-old camp in Moultonborough, N.H., in the middle of the summer left campers bereft, counselors stewing, and some parents furious. Soon, stories began to circulate of problems that went much deeper than late deliveries: counselors hired just days before camp and lacking basic training; a counselor punched in the face by a child and a camper later hit in the head by the same child; dirty dishes provided at multiple meals; at least four campers vomiting and getting quarantined, while some parents said they weren’t informed; and staff quitting and being fired in high numbers.
Indeed, a camper’s letter to his parents from the first week reads like the famous parody letter from camp:
“We have been in tears, bored, and devastated the whole day. [The camp director] is lying to you all,” the camper wrote. “You have to trust us. You have to. We are not joking and we are not having fun. So many things are wrong with this place.” The boy’s father, who found the note folded in his son’s pocket days after camp closed and provided it to the Globe, requested anonymity to protect his son’s privacy.
Tales from the aggrieved make Quinebarge sound like the summer camp equivalent of Fyre Festival, the ill-fated music fest that promised luxury accommodations in the Bahamas but instead delivered FEMA tents and second-rate cheese sandwiches. The Globe spoke with more than a dozen parents, current and former staff, and campers.
Some believe camp leaders used a delay by Sysco, the food supplier, as an excuse to end a fiasco of a season. (A Sysco spokeswoman confirmed that the company told the camp that its food would be delivered a day late during the first week.)
“Shock does not even begin to cover it,” Rebecca Gove, a Foxborough parent who sent two children to Quinebarge, wrote in a letter to the camp afterward. She moderates the “Abandoned Camp Q 2021″ private Facebook group, where livid parents have gathered to compare notes.
The camp’s executive director, Eric Carlson, said in a statement that camp was felled by industrywide staffing and supply chain complications that were “not due to any long-term issues with camp operations.” Carlson, a former Quinebarge camper and counselor, bought the co-ed camp in April but has run it with his wife, Lesley, since 2012. It was licensed to operate this summer by the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services though closed before an in-season inspection occurred, according to a spokesman for the agency. Quinebarge canceled all remaining sessions for the summer when it shuttered.
“We sincerely apologize to all those families and staff members who had their summer plans interrupted by our premature closure,” Carlson wrote. He also said that the parents of children who were quarantined after vomiting were notified.
Children and counselors said the first few days of camp were not “the best time you could have in the world,” as the promotional video promised. Activities were understaffed, overworked counselors screamed at each other in front of kids, and people started quitting (and being fired).
Perhaps there were some early red flags. As the Concord Monitor reported, many New England summer camps this year experienced a hiring crunch. Quinebarge’s enrollment numbers spiked, but workers everywhere were scarce. And so just two weeks before camp began, leadership sent parents an urgent e-mail, which the Globe obtained.
“We are in desperate need of additional staff for this summer,” Carlson wrote, noting that 15 staffers had recently “dropped or ghosted” the camp. Carlson said he was looking to hire 15 to 20 more people “this week, when our training begins.”
A number of staffers told the Globe they were hired during that period and received minimal vetting or training.
“I was hired about four days before campers arrived,” said MJ Lowry, a 21-year-old counselor this summer. “They just kind of said, ‘Hey you were referred, we’ll send you the application. You seem to be qualified, do you want the position?’”
“I played kickball, and got to see the turtle and the frog in the pond and learn about tadpoles. It was stuff like that,” Lowry said of their brief training.
Chris Bigler, a 19-year-old counselor who had attended Quinebarge in 2018 and called it “the best summer I ever had,” had no intention of working there this summer. But when the camp director reached out to him in mid-June, he happened to be in a desperate situation.
“My options were either emergency housing or Camp Quinebarge,” said Bigler, noting that he received CPR, first aid, ropes, and archery training. An 8-year-old camper later described him as “the counselor who did not quit.”
Carlson acknowledged that some counselors had to join late because of hiring difficulties, but said “at no time were corners cut with regard to the vetting of staff or our mandatory trainings.” He said 52 counselors and 13 CITS were employed on the first day, and that five or six counselors quit and three were fired.
From camper Kayden Gove’s perspective, the whole experience was unusual. Kayden, 8, said he was hit in the head with a wooden block by another camper; his mother, Rebecca Gove, said he was bruised when he returned home. Kayden’s counselor, Bigler, said he was previously attacked by the same child, who punched him in the face, giving him a bloody lip.
Carlson said Quinebarge “took immediate action and removed the child from camp.”
Kayden said another one of his counselors departed about three days after camp began.
“He came to our cabin and said he was quitting. . . . He said the camp wasn’t like one that he had ever seen,” said Kayden, who attended Quinebarge in 2019 and loved it. “I thought, that’s sad.”
In the kitchen, the commercial dishwasher was broken, which meant unclean dishes were provided to kids during meals, according to Caliban Chesterfield, a counselor known as “Dodger” who worked in food prep. Chesterfield also said in the week leading up to camp, a staffer’s child was served a mostly raw meatball during a meal; the cook was subsequently dismissed. (The Globe confirmed this account with another staffer.) Carlson disputed that account, saying the dishwasher had an issue for one meal and that the dishes were always properly washed.
On top of day-to-day snafus, the camp was having an identity crisis. Quinebarge pitches itself as an “LGBT friendly summer camp” where trans and nonbinary campers and staff live in cabins that best fit their gender identities. But trans counselors said they did not always feel comfortable, and a couple kids were withdrawn because their parents did not want them living with trans counselors, according to Lowry and Carlson. Carlson said the camp’s commitment to being LGBTQ-friendly remains strong.
And then, almost as quickly as camp ramped up, it was ending. Carlson first sent out a note to parents midweek, acknowledging that “the past couple of days have been a bit rough,” but assuring them that the kids were safe and “overwhelmingly having a good time.” The next day parents were told to promptly pick up their children.
Of course, after the fact, parents acknowledged there had been warning signs. The children’s delayed letters home. The camp photographer disappearing from the Facebook group a few days after camp began. Unanswered calls and e-mails to camp administrators. But this? A full accounting was essential.
In spite of the drama, some have remained loyal, saying leaders did the best they could under trying circumstances.
“[The] kids are annoyed, they’re upset, they would rather be at camp than with us. [But] they’re all fine,” said Brian Roemer, who called Quinebarge a “fantastic place” that both his children have attended for years (only one attended this year). Based on what he had seen on the private Facebook group, Roemer suspects there may be a disconnect between what a rustic overnight camp is actually like and what parents in this highly connected era expect it to be.
A few days after camp’s hasty end, Quinebarge sent out an all-camp e-mail.
“Upon reflection, we know that camp is only good for the kids if we can ensure their health and safety,” the Carlsons and camp director Nick Hercules wrote. “That is why as soon as we finish our closing work for 2021, we will begin preparing for summer 2022.”
Laura Crimaldi of the Globe staff contributed to this report.