SHERIDAN — Summer camp is a place of freedom and exploration, of friendship and community-building. This year, the structure of Sheridan’s day camps will be different but the spirit will remain the same.

Registration for small group day camps opened this week at the Sheridan County YMCA, Executive Director Elisabeth Cassiday said. Opening registration was a welcome change following weeks of closure and uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We had this awesome, really nice brochure this year, we really stepped up our game,” Cassiday said.

“That came to a halt, so we have created what we call a camp committee with our administrators. We really decided, what is the purpose of camp? It’s to meet students where they are, and give them what they need during those summer months.”

Knowing that this summer will be different than any other, the YMCA began focusing on what it could do rather than what it couldn’t.

“We know there are parents who have used all their personal time, all their vacation time, and they are juggling all their resources,” Cassiday said. “When summer hits, the usual ‘I can cover this week with vacation,’ those things are already used up.”

Traditional camps rely heavily on bus transportation with dozens of children in one vehicle, and social distancing during overnight camps is nearly impossible. While the YMCA will not open Camp Roberts near Buffalo to overnight camps, small groups will be taken on large buses for day trips to regional locations.

“We are going to hold what we call backyard camps, and the idea is that we can still have a good time in the Y’s backyard,” Cassiday said. “We have probably the largest backyard in town.”

When the regulations limiting gatherings began to ease in early May, the YMCA went from planning for groups of eight kids per “club” to 16. Instead of it’s Thunderbird Summer Camp, it will host a Thunder Club in June.

“We will have 16 kids per group, so, instead of our Thunderbird Summer Camp, we are calling it Thunder Club to indicate a little bit smaller of a group,” Cassiday said. “We are using one of the extra large buses so we can designate certain seats.”

The Y has reserved spots for high-risk children within Sheridan’s school districts, and has opened to public registration as well. Plans for July and August will take shape in mid-June as restrictions may change again.

“We are kind of taking all of our resources and consolidating them so that at the least, we can make sure over 60 kids are experiencing camp, even if it is just in our backyard,” Cassiday said.

The staff will have extra procedures in place during check-in, and Cassiday said everyone will do their best to keep children safe.

“The need is so great this year, and we want to provide what we can. We want to keep everyone as safe as possible,” she said. “But we also want to be reasonable with what we tell parents. To say, your child will never be within 6 feet of another child is just not (realistic).”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s considerations for summer and youth camps, the lowest risk scenario is one in which small groups of campers stay together all day, each day, spaced apart without sharing objects. Outdoor activities are prioritized, and campers should be from the same city, town, county or community.

The highest risk scenario, according to the CDC, is one in which campers mix between groups and do not remain spaced apart, and are not from the local geographic area. Of course, the CDC recommends staying home when ill, cloth face coverings when appropriate and routine cleaning and disinfecting of frequently touched surfaces and vehicles.

Sarah Mentock, executive director of Science Kids, said her organization has had a presence in up to 10 communities in Wyoming in years past. Because of the pandemic and restrictions on bus use, Science Kids will not offer day camps in Sheridan this year.

“Our model is so dependent upon buses,” Mentock said. “As far as Sheridan is concerned, I knew it wasn’t going to work not to have buses for our regular summer classes … Cody, where there is no Y, is going to try to offer some classes in July without the use of buses.”

Mentock said she hopes to offer UNPLUG activities, a collaboration between Sheridan Community Land Trust and Science Kids that provides free, monthly outdoor education programs for kids and their families.

While the cancellation is not ideal, Mentock said she’s received board approval to offer her services as a fundraiser this summer for other frontline nonprofits. Because Science Kids has grant and community support to sustain its operations, she’s reaching out to other organizations within the community, finding ways to continue the Science Kids mission even without day camps.

“We can’t host our camps, and I could keep myself busy, but the spirit of Science Kids — we try to help, collaborate and help out where we can. That is the culture we have grown,” Mentock said. “There are frontline nonprofits that are facing an increased demand for services right now, and we want to get the word out … that I can offer my services as a fundraiser.”

Similarly, the YMCA is focusing on being there for the community during a challenging time.

“If we can have an impact on any of these kids’ lives, even if it is not our usual way or amount, it’s worthwhile,” Cassiday said. “The Y never measures things in terms of ‘If we have x many kids then it is worth doing a program.’

“On the one hand, we know what kids need this summer more than ever, but in part, it is selfish because our staff really need to see some kids,” she said. “We hire people that, this is what motivates them and they wait all school year for this awesome camp. Even if it doesn’t look like what they planned, the more we talked about it, the more we went from, ‘This is our compromise,’ to ‘We are really excited.’”