With her laptop open and credit card out, Allyson Mendoza watched the clock flip from 7:59 to 8:00 am. ‘Register now’ popped up on her screen.
The mother of three had set timers and reminders for this moment weeks in advance of the March deadline. By 8:02 a.m., she had secured spots for her two oldest children at Hummel Day Camp, the wildly popular city-run day camp held for more than 70 summers in Omaha’s Hummel Park. She had done so with mere minutes to spare.
“It’s the most stressful ten minutes of my life, and I’m a lawyer,” Mendoza said.
The Mendoza children and over 2,000 other Omaha kids who annually go on nature hikes, learn archery, and play capture the flag tend to love the day camp, Mendoza said, because “it lets them be very exploratory and free in a way that I don’t think a lot of other camps do.”
But that freedom to explore isn’t quite free – and it isn’t felt equally across the city of Omaha.
The city-funded camp, long held in North Omaha, includes very few North Omaha children, a Flatwater Free Press analysis found. Instead, the day campers are disproportionately from wealthier West Omaha zip codes.
Last summer, more than half of the roughly 2,000 Hummel day campers from Omaha lived west of 90th Street, even though only 33% of Omaha’s under-18 population lives in the zip codes west of that street.
One out of every 20 Hummel day campers hailed from a North Omaha zip code.
There were only 13 campers from zip code 68112 – the North Omaha zip code that includes Hummel Park.
“A lot of our kids have never been swimming, horseback riding, fishing – to day camps, to summer camps,” said Elu El, a North Omaha mother whose 10-year-old daughter hasn’t attended Hummel Day Camp.
Attending Hummel is a decades-long tradition for some Omaha families. But El never heard of the camp despite growing up in North Omaha – a disconnect that may partly explain the camp’s disproportionate West Omaha population.
The low number of North Omaha campers is also likely due to a lack of intentional outreach from the city, said Sen. Terrell McKinney who represents parts of North Omaha in the Nebraska Legislature.
The number of North Omaha campers would likely grow if leaders of the Hummel Day Camp and parks department spent more time in front of school officials, North Omaha community organizations and parent groups, McKinney said. It would also help to eliminate another barrier, he said: Cost.
“I wish…we lived in a city that really cared about the well-being of all kids and not just a few,” McKinney said.
Matthew Kalcevich, Parks and Recreation Director for the City of Omaha, said that the parks department already touches “a lot of points in the community” as it promotes its camps each year and begins marketing several months before registration opens. He also noted that, while Hummel Day Camp isn’t free, it is affordable.
“We certainly want to be accessible, we certainly want it to be affordable,” Kalcevich said.
Hummel Day Camp is $115, according to the Omaha Parks and Recreation website. Parents pay that cost to offset the expense of running the camps, Kalcevich said. Money from the city’s general fund covers the rest to keep the price for parents low, he said.
There are scholarships available for families that can demonstrate they qualify for free and reduced lunch for the most expensive day camps, Hummel and Zorinsky. That scholarship brings the cost down to $50 for Hummel. But only about 3% of day campers who attended Hummel or Zorinsky last year did so on that scholarship – a low percentage seemingly suggesting that many Omaha parents of lower income don’t know it exists.
Even when cut nearly in half, the price of Hummel can be too much for some Omaha families. North Omaha mother Tyronda Pierce receives disability and says there’s little money to spare after she pays her bills. Spending any amount of money on camps for one of her four kids means sacrificing something else.
“And especially when you have more than one child,” Pierce said. “Which child do I sacrifice for to go and tell the other one, ‘No, you’ve got to wait?”
It’s important to note: Hummel is far from the only Omaha Parks and Recreation summer camp.
Camp Adams in North Omaha costs $35, Camp Hanscom in South Omaha costs $50 and Camp Zorinsky in West Omaha costs $105.
Data shows that both Camp Hanscom and Camp Adams have populations more representative of Omaha and the specific parts of the city where they are located.
Together, the city’s 17 lowest-income zip codes – primarily located in North and South Omaha – make up roughly 40% of Omaha’s child-age population, according to the 2020 census estimates. At both camps, roughly 44% of attendees are from those low-income zip codes.
Parks and Recreation’s two largest day camps, Zorinsky and Hummel, are a different story.
Less than a quarter of Hummel’s campers hail from Omaha zip codes with median incomes below the state average.
Only 8% of campers at Zorinsky, located in West Omaha, lived in zip codes with below-average median incomes in 2022.
Both Camp Adams and Camp Hanscom run for four weeks in the summer. Zorinsky is eight weeks; Hummel lasts nine.
Transportation is offered at Hummel, Adams and Hanscom from community centers across the city. None is offered to Camp Zorinsky, meaning parents in North and South Omaha wanting to send their kids to that camp would need to drive their child to 156th Street – a drive families like Pierce’s may struggle to make.
“When I look at all the activities that are available for kids that I know about, they’re out across the 72nd line,” Pierce said.
Camp Adams, which, like Hummel Day Camp, is located in North Omaha, has a different registration system that may keep it more representative of the community in which it exists.
The first two weeks of registration are in-person at the Adams Community Center.
“We want to make sure that the people from that community have the first shot,” said Chris Haberling, recreation manager for Omaha Parks and Recreation.
Adams is the only camp with an in-person-only registration, but parents with difficulty registering online for any of the day camps are welcome to visit any Omaha Parks and Recreation community center for assistance, Haberling said.
Until a few years ago, registration for Hummel was done by school – but not every Omaha school was included. The parks department switched over to the current system to allow more families to access the camps, Haberling said.
“We just want to do as much as we can to get as many people involved as we can,” Kalcevich said.
To make room for more campers from all regions of Omaha, the city plans to expand Hummel and Zorinsky camps this summer. They are also working to establish a new camp in South Omaha, Kalcevich said.
The new camp will potentially open in 2024 in Mandan Park, located in 68107, a zip code with the seventh-highest child poverty rate in the city. Only 16 children from that zip code attended any of the City of Omaha’s day camps in 2022.
“We’re really trying to just ensure that there are very few barriers, at the least, to try to allow people to be part of these great experiences and to help them have a tremendous summer that we want all youth to have here in Omaha,” Kalcevich said.
Help is also on the way in the form of federal funding, McKinney said. The state senator expects some Economic Recovery Plan funding to go toward youth engagement programming.
“It’s no surprise why we have so many issues pertaining to our juveniles currently in the city,” he said. “A lot of the programs that kept a lot of kids out of the streets were either eliminated or are super underfunded.”
Unless more changes are made, it’s likely that Omaha’s day camps – particularly Hummel – will remain a tale of two cities, according to data and interviews with North Omaha mothers.
Elu El and Tyronda Pierce both remember attending or sending their children to Sun Dawgs, long a city-run program that offered free childcare to neighborhood families during summer workdays. But the Sun Daws program ended more than a decade ago, replaced by camps that have more structure, Kalcevich said.
Both the El and Pierce families live in zip code 68131, which has the third-lowest median income in the city. A total of 20 of the 2,000 Hummel Day Camp attendees last summer hailed from that zip code.
68118, a similarly sized zip code in West Omaha, sent 58 children to Hummel Day Camp last summer.
“Because these kids have lacked these nature experiences, these childhood experiences… they’ve been forced to live different childhoods,” El said.
The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.
How we reported this story: The data on campers by zip code was gathered through a public record request to the Omaha Parks and Recreation department for the 2022 summer. The zip codes were reported by parents. Zip codes of 83 campers could not be identified in census data. Population estimates and median income by zip code came from the 2020 American Community Survey found on https://data.census.gov/. The percentage of the under-18 population in each zip code was then compared to the percentage of campers from that same zip code.