Sunshine puts day camps in awkward position
Some camps err on side of caution, requiring children or parents to apply sunscreen, while others detail guidelines for counselors to apply it
Z Frank Apache Day Camp counselor, Casey Platt, applies sunscreen to Ethan Seligman,5, of Highland Park. (William DeShazer/Chicago Tribune)
Maryland's state health department issued a policy forbidding counselors from applying sunscreen to campers and from children slathering each other, all in an effort to protect the youths from too much closeness. But the policy was rescinded just three weeks later in June after the American Academy of Dermatology raised the specter of skin damage.
In Chicagoland, camps are split, with some taking the hands-off route, telling parents to take care of sunscreen before children leave home or sending it for them to apply. It's part of the abundance-of-caution approach that also limits hugs and actions that might be misinterpreted. Other camps see the risk of sunburn outweighing such concerns and depend on training to avoid problems.
Michelle Tuft, superintendent of recreation in the Skokie Park District, said parents of campers are told in writing that staff will supervise but not apply sunscreen or bug repellent.
"It just gets into that personal space issue with parents not being comfortable with us touching their children in that way," Tuft said. "For us, it is not an issue with us doing it. ... We certainly would not mind doing it, just a thing of the parents not wanting us to do that. We are protecting staff. ... Unfortunately in today's society (false accusations) come up."
Camp counselors at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle also do not apply sunscreen, but keep a watchful eye on charges as young as 5 and if they notice sunburn or other effects of heat exposure, they take them inside or squirt them with water to cool off, said Peggy West, head of education.
"Partly the reason we don't do it is because in the past, there were some parents that objected," she said.
Counselors and assistants also are not to be alone with a child and "everything is on a buddy system," she said. "We discourage a lot of hugging and affection or anything that can be misconstrued."
Sue Cromer, associate for youth campus young adult ministry and summer camps for the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, said, "We always err on the side of caution." No sunscreen is applied by counselors and no fewer than three people should be together at any time, she said.
But not all camps think a hands-off policy is the way to go.
Gayle Malvin, director of day camping for the Jewish Community Center of Chicago, which operates eight camp programs throughout Chicago and the suburbs, said counselors are trained about appropriate touching and do apply sunscreen throughout the day.
"We work with our campers to reapply after swimming and maybe a couple hours after that," Malvin said. "We use spray sunscreen and some kids bring their own, but we have to help them rub it on. We do serve young kids, and a 4-, 5-, 6-year-old really isn't going to be able to do it themselves."
Jennifer Ruttkay, whose two children, 5 and 7, attend Z Frank Apachi Day Camp in Northbrook operated by the community center, said she thinks "it is very important for counselors to be able to put sunscreen on my children."
Ruttkay, a former camp employee, said the risk of sun damage overrules any other concerns for her.
At Indian Boundary YMCA in Downers Grove, parents are told to apply sunscreen and send a tube for counselors to use as needed if parents sign a permission slip, said Linda Gerardi, early childhood director/camp director at the YMCA.
Counselors at the camp, which sees 150 to 175 children — some as young as 3 — each week for 10 weeks during the summer, undergo child abuse training, she said.
"We are outside 99.9 percent of the day," she said, making it necessary to often reapply sunscreen or assist children in doing it.
Gerardi, who has worked with young children for 25 years, said parents have never indicated they were worried about inappropriate touching, but instead are concerned about their child getting sunburned or sharing sunscreen for fear of allergic reactions and skin sensitivities.
"Parents are very happy the camp does reapply throughout the day," she said.