By Emily Cureton Cook
March 18, 2023, Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB)
Angie Arnett is a mom on a mission.
“I tell my husband it’s a job in and of itself,” said the Bend resident.
The job is enrolling their 9-year-old daughter, Allie, in camps through the Bend Park and Recreation District. Angie and her husband work and are among many parents scrambling now to figure out what their kids will be doing all summer.
“[Allie] is getting old enough to where she can be at home alone a little bit at a time, but also she doesn’t like to,” Angie said. “She’s had some anxiety since COVID, so she likes to be somewhere where she feels safe, secure.”
“Somewhere with my friends,” Allie chimed in.
Her friends also struggle with anxiety, she said, so they know how to support each other. When Allie’s playing volleyball with her team, she feels calm and in the moment.
“It’s like trying to solve a puzzle. When the ball comes over the net towards you, we have to maneuver and try to figure out who’s gonna do what,” Allie said.
Angie hopes she can get Allie into Bend’s summer volleyball program. It’s among a slate of wildly popular and relatively affordable youth activities offered by the public district, which open for registration March 20-22. Angie will need careful planning, time and luck to get in.
“It will be all-consuming,” she said of the process.
After combing through the options to select their top choices and make sure they work with the family’s schedule, Angie will be getting up around 5:30 a.m. to be ready for the 6 a.m. opening of registration days. Even so, she’s likely to end up on waiting lists.
Bend Park And Recreation business manager Michael Egging said districts across the country are seeing demand for their programs triple or quadruple, but Bend’s increase “blew that out of the water.”
Demand for Bend’s recreation programs has increased ninefold since the district reopened from COVID closures.
“This is mind-boggling for all of us,” Egging said.
Last year, the glut of eager patrons caused the whole registration system to crash, leaving parents angry and kids disappointed.
In response, BPRD retooled its technology. Now, the internet bandwidth is 10 times larger, registrations for various programs are staggered over three days, and people who log on before the process begins are assigned a random number in line when the window officially opens.
It’s the same system used to sell the most in-demand concert tickets in the world.
“We don’t have the same demand as Taylor Swift, yet,” Egging said.
The district is offering more spots than it’s ever had, he added, but overall capacity is limited by physical space and staffing. For popular youth offerings, within 15 minutes of registration opening the waitlists can exceed the number of people who get into the program.
This scarcity speaks to families eager for social interaction after lockdowns. And it also points to gaps in available child care, said Boys and Girls Club of Bend CEO Bess Goggins.
“Particularly 5- to 12-year-olds, where we need someone with them when they’re not in school. We need to make sure that they’re engaged and safe,” Goggins said.
Summertime and after-school providers need more space and staffing, she said. But tackling those issues requires other problems to be solved, like a lack of affordable housing.
“It’s larger than funding,” Goggins said. “It’s a multifaceted challenge
She wants lawmakers and local leaders at the same table, working on a host of solutions.
In the meantime, 9-year-old Allie Arnett has a backup plan if she doesn’t get into camps this summer. She’s going to go old school.
“We have this big table in our garage, so we kind of set that up like by the entrance of our driveway.”
And voilà— a lemonade stand. Better yet, make that ice cream.
“We put an umbrella over it and put the ice cream tubs in a cooler along with toppings like sprinkles, cherries, all that type of stuff, caramel sauce, chocolate sauce,” she said.
The best part for Allie is meeting new people. She said that last time she did this, she met a new neighbor her age, and made a new friend to spend her summers with.