NEW PORT RICHEY — It's getting close to that time of year again, and Barry and Paula Cohen have decided to do more than just sweat it out.
They hate to say no to anyone, but they realize that this year they might have to — unless they get to the business of fundraising now.
Since 1997, the two have managed to offer a summer camp experience called PACK (Pasco Association for Challenged Kids) for children with mental and physical disabilities. The idea to start PACK grew out of necessity when the county shortened the summer school program attended by their autistic son. They realized then that there was no other summer program available for kids like him.
Almost every year since, (except for 2003, when the camp was temporarily cancelled and local donors jumped in to save the day) the state has funded PACK, which has varied in length from three to six weeks. The camp was nearly canceled again in 2006, when Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed funding. That was reinstated after the governor was met with a barrage of letters, e-mails and phone calls.
The good news this year is that there's still enough money to provide a two-week camp for the capacity of 40 kids. The bad news, according to the Cohens, is that two weeks is not enough and with more budget cuts looming, they're not counting on any more state money.
"We've been warned by (state Sen.) Mike Fasano not to expect anything this year," said Barry Cohen. "I'm trying to be optimistic, but I just know we're not going to get funding out of Tallahassee. You turn on the news and everything is cut, cut, cut. There's no money there."
Typically the final word on that comes in May but the Cohens don't want to wait until then.
"We're trying to raise funding like every other nonprofit," Barry Cohen said. "We're applying for grants but we're finding that a lot of times we don't meet the criteria. We can usually count on some help from Publix and we do have the yearly Bowl-a-thon coming up. The Bowl-a-thon is a nice way for people to know who we are, but realistically it doesn't raise enough to fund the camp for two weeks. "
PACK provides a fun time in a safe setting for kids who might otherwise not have a summer camp experience, Paula Cohen said. But it is also essential for working parents who would otherwise have to take time off to care for their kids during the summer months. "I know first hand that these parents need a break more than anybody," she said. "Some parents get funding for respite care, but a lot of those services have been cut with all the state budget cuts."
While parents pay a $60 registration fee per week, the cost to run the camp — staff, rent, insurance and activities — comes in at about $12,000 a week, Barry Cohen said.
This year 40 kids are already signed up for PACK and another 10 to 12 are on the waiting list.
"It's only April," he said. "So there's likely more requests to come."
The Cohens are asking for help from local businesses and folks in the community.
"If we were able to do four weeks, everybody could go — even the kids on the waiting list," said Paula Cohen. "It would really make me sad telling all these new kids they couldn't come."
The bottom line, Paula Cohen said, "is that after 11 years, we're still the only game in town. All the wheelchair kids — all the cerebral palsy kids have no place else to go."