Sarah’s Science, a popular outdoor day camp for kids 4 to 14 that has run in the Berkeley and Oakland hills since 1987, is shutting down, a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sarah Shaffer, the camp’s founder and director, sent an email to the parents of former campers in January informing them the camp had run out of money and she, the sole proprietor, had filed for personal bankruptcy.
“This is the hardest letter I’ve ever written,” Shaffer wrote. “Sarah’s Science / This Land is Your Land Summer Day Camp did not survive the pandemic.”
Shaffer wrote that the camp, which held year-round activities like after-school programs, spring break camps, and “mother and daughter science workshops,” had attempted to cut back on expenses and create online programming to stay afloat. But even a $200,600 PPP loan the camp received in May did not prevent its closure, she told families.
“We really tried,” Shaffer said in the email. “We took out loans — they weren’t enough. We cut back on expenses — it wasn’t enough. When it became clear that we couldn’t hold in-person programs, we tried shifting to online programs. Those programs did not take off. We have no choice now but to declare bankruptcy.
“I always loved picking up kids at Sarah’s Science because they’d be absolutely filthy head to toe…and so incredibly happy.” — Al Flor
Galileo, another science-based summer camp with a Berkeley location, also filed for bankruptcy in May 2020 after it was forced to cancel its 2020 session, but it reorganized the company and plans on offering an in-person camp this summer.
Parents of former campers mourned the news of the camp’s closure. They remembered the camp as a welcome opportunity for their children to spend long days outdoors.
“I always loved picking up the kids at Sarah’s Science because they would be absolutely filthy head to toe, just covered in dirt and so incredibly happy,” said Al Flor, who has three children who all went to the camp. “It was just a really wonderful, wonderful place.”
Sarah’s Science was held each summer in the wooded area under the Tilden Carousel in Berkeley and in the redwood forest of Roberts Park in Oakland.
In the bankruptcy filing, Shaffer wrote that her assets are worth about $2.24 million, and that she owes about $2.55 million. About $641,000 of that debt is to families who prepaid camp tuition in 2019 in advance of the 2020 session that never happened. They are now among the 1,000 to 5,000 creditors Shaffer listed on her bankruptcy petition. Shaffer’s debt also includes repayment of the PPP loan she received.
Shaffer did not respond to several emails and did not respond to an interview request or questions that Berkeleyside emailed to her lawyer.
Mollie Boero, whose children attended the camp since kindergarten and whose daughter worked at the camp as a counselor, paid $2,580 in advance for five weeks of the 2020 session for her son (the tuition for early registrations was between $480 and $505 per week).
“I basically lost that money,” she said. “We got a letter from bankruptcy court saying, ‘You can’t sue them, because they’re going bankrupt.’”
Boero decided not to ask for the money back in June 2020, when the camp first announced it wouldn’t be able to hold its session, because she “kind of knew it couldn’t get paid back, especially if everyone wanted their money back at once,” she said.
“It was a charitable act, almost, to not demand your money,” she added.
Trouble for the camp started soon after Alameda County and Berkeley issued a shelter-in-place order on March 16, 2020. The camp was forced to cancel its sessions in the spring and summer. Shaffer told parents that the East Bay Regional Park District and Berkeley Health Department requirements and regulations had made it impossible to hold a summer camp in Tilden.
“I already miss your children. I will desperately miss standing in the Redwoods each Monday morning welcoming returning and new parents.” — Sarah Shaffer
“It is indescribably difficult to type these words, but for the first time in the 25 year history of Sarah’s Science, I am not going to be able to operate camp this summer,” Shaffer wrote to the “Sarah Science Family” on June 8. … “I already miss your children, I will desperately miss standing in the Redwoods each Monday morning welcoming returning and new parents, I’ll miss witnessing the collective gratitude of over 100 campers sharing what they are thankful for in our “closing circle,” and I will miss the shared experiences of new discoveries and memories being made.”
When Berkeley High senior Miles Miller, a long-time camp attendee and former counselor, learned from a friend that Sarah’s Science had gone bankrupt, he couldn’t believe it at first, he said.
“My exact text was, ‘Send me the evidence,’” he said. “I’ve grown up with some of my best friends from that place since I was six, and learning we would never be able to congregate there anymore under the bubble of Sarah’s Science was just absolutely heartbreaking.”
Miller recalled happy memories of dodgeball, group singing and marathon lanyard making. (This reporter attended Sarah’s Science for a few years around 2008-2010, and has many of the same happy memories.) Miller has a box in his room of lanyards he made last summer when, bored because the camp was closed, he learned online how to make different kinds of lanyards. Those he made at camp in previous years he gave to friends and campers, he said.
“Sarah has had this thriving successful business that served probably thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of kids over the years, and through no fault of her own she’s had to close it down,” said Susan Malloy, whose two children went to the camp. “I just thought it was so sad.”
Margaret Tormey, whose son Edward had been to Sarah’s Science every year since kindergarten and was planning on applying to be a counselor there in 2020, said she “would definitely consider donating if it was able to help keep the camp afloat.”
“A lot of thought went into that camp, and those kids had a good time,” she said.
The camp’s success with campers and their parents was largely due to Shaffer’s own work there, Miller said.
“She kind of seemed like this type of godly figure – when Sarah shows up, everybody knows,” he said. “This institution she was able to build is a lifetime achievement, and that should be recognized,” he added. “It might be hard right now with everything going on but I think she should be proud of the work she was able to do – it was absolutely incredible.”