Do expensive summer camps leave military kids behind?

For some military children, the highlights of the summer are low-key events like playing at the beach, going to the swimming pool on base, seeing movies at the base theater, and eating popsicles in the backyard. They may hear of friends who attend a week of soccer camp with a professional player, overnight Boy Scout Camp full of canoeing and hiking, or a week-long science camp at a college campus. . . but they can only dream of such events.

Many military children have never experienced going to a summer camp because their family cannot afford such activities.

Are military kids missing out during the summer?

Most of the military spouses I know do not have a full-time job. They either stay home raising children, find part-time work after a PCS move, or are currently pursuing a degree while they are in between jobs. Military spouse unemployment is currently four times higher than their civilian counterparts of the same age. Even military spouses who want to work have a hard time finding jobs. Affordable child care is cited as one of the major hurdles.

Military families often find themselves in a catch-22 during the summer months: Both parents need full-time jobs to afford childcare and summer activities, but without children enrolled full-time in such activities, the military spouse is unable to work. Since military families are often stationed far from family and can’t rely on grandparents to help watch the children, the cheapest option often means unemployment for one parent.

Summer camp options military families can afford

However, summer isn’t all bad news and disappointment for military kids. There are some camps that are affordable for military families. If your kids are complaining about being bored this summer, or you worry that they are missing out on memorable opportunities, then consider enrolling them in some of these programs.

Vacation Bible School: Most Christian churches offer a week-long day camp called vacation bible school, VBS, or bible camp. These programs typically run in the morning hours and do not provide meals besides snack. They are usually free or low-cost camps, run by volunteers. Grade school children ages five to 13 will have fun as they engage in outdoor games, craft projects, snack time, and singing. Of course, instruction in the Christian faith and the Bible is part of the program. Your child can enroll in several VBS programs during the summer. They are not limited to attending only at your own church. Research programs around you and ask if your child’s friends are attending camps at other churches. Children will enjoy this camp more if they attend with friends or siblings.

YMCA camps: The YMCA has numerous benefits for military families. We have previously outlined some of their discounts and military programs here. The YMCA offers numerous summer camps and special programs for children. Some are designed for parents who work full-time, but there are also part-day camps and classes for special interests ranging from sports to Legos to Star Wars. Using a military discount of a membership discount is the way to make these camps affordable. Talk to the YMCA near you to learn if they have a military discount for swim lessons, soccer camp, or Princess Day Camp. Your kids will thank you.

City and county programs: These programs vary depending on your local city or county parks and recreation programs. Most cities and counties offer youth sports or day camps during the summer. In areas near military bases, these programs sometimes give military children priority for enrollment or offer a special military discount. Affordable programs fill up quickly, so parents should begin to research in the spring and set an alarm on the day enrollment begins. In our county, there is a special grant for military families to give them a half-price discount on community activities. Applying for the grant takes a few weeks, but paying half the cost for sports and summer camps is a huge benefit.

Charity organizations: Several military charities run free summer camps for military children or families. Some of those camps are outlined in our article here. Those are national organizations that run camps at locations throughout the country. There are also numerous local charities not listed that host just one summer event for military kids. Ask around and find out of there are military charities offering summer camps near you! I was surprised to learn that the Seven Stars Foundation provides free passes to a traditional week-long summer camp for children of Gold Star and Purple Heart families. Because of this grant, my military children will get to attend an outdoor summer camp after all.

By Lizann Lightfoot

Lizann Lightfoot is an associate editor at Military One Click and a Marine Corps spouse. She can be reached at