Summer `Camp Care' Is Latest Corporate Benefit

ANYONE who romanticizes the "lazy, hazy days" of summer is probably not a working parent with school-age children. For these families, the old song might more aptly refer to the "crazy" days of summer as parents scramble to find safe, affordable care for offspring too old for child-care centers and too young to be left alone all day.

For some working parents, the white knight coming to the rescue this summer will be corporate America.

"Camp care" is the latest family-oriented benefit offered by progressive employers like American Telephone and Telegraph and International Business Machines. By contributing funds to day camps in regions where they have sizable numbers of employees, these and other companies hope to increase the quantity and improve the quality of summer programs for children.

AT&T has donated almost $400,000 to three dozen camp programs in seven states - Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia, Texas, Colorado, Illinois, and Florida. IBM has awarded $128,500 to four camps in Austin, Texas, Danbury, Conn., Endicott, N.Y., and Raleigh, N.C. And Mead Johnson Nutritional Group has funded a science and technology camp in Evansville, Ind.

"The corporate dollars enable programs to do what they couldn't do without that kind of support," explains Betty Southwick, a program specialist at Work/Family Directions in Boston, a consulting firm hired by several companies to find appropriate camps and develop programs.

"These are usually nonprofit organizations that don't have the capital to buy equipment and hire staff on the risk that they might not fill the camp," she says.

Corporate money is primarily used to allow providers to increase enrollment, improve programs, and extend hours to suit working parents' needs. Hours might run from 6:30 in the morning to 6 in the evening. The camps are open to the community, with employees of corporate donors given first chance to fill the extra slots.

COMPANIES have also provided everything from computers and videocameras to photography equipment, potter's wheels, and woodworking supplies. These activities can be especially appealing to older children, who sometimes find traditional day-camp programs too juvenile.

Burke Stinson, a spokesman for AT&T, emphasizes the need for high standards at the camps. "More important than all the in-house publicity is the word-of-mouth reputation," he says. "You don't want employees saying, `That camp that Sally's kid was sent to had a mud hole for a pond.' They must be among the best."

Until now, corporate child-care initiatives have focused primarily on infants and preschoolers. But increasingly, employers are beginning to concentrate on school-age care. "Summer camps are the kinds of things we're seeing corporations express interest in," says Ms. Southwick.

"The needs of elder care and child care are more dramatic, but the needs of school-age children are no less important," adds Mr. Stinson. "Parents dread summer vacations, especially single parents who don't have a spouse to trade off vacations to take care of their children."

Although it is too early to predict how many AT&T employees will take advantage of the initial program this summer, response to IBM's camp program the past two years has been positive, says John Boudreaux, a company spokesman. Giving children who might otherwise be "summer latchkeys" a regular place to play under supervision, he finds, gives parents peace of mind and makes them better workers."Quite frankly, it comes down to a productivity issue," says Mr. Boudreaux. "That's not the only reason we do it,

but that is one of the benefits of the program. When you look at it overall, you have the employee being benefited, the child being benefited, the employer being benefited. We don't view this program in terms of just wanting to be nice guys. It's not a corporate citizenship program, it's not a giveaway program. We think we derive benefits from it."

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