Why summer camp is out of reach for many Ontario kids

Summer camp can be a life-changing experience. So why are so many kids in this province shut out?
By Rosa Saba - Published on June 11, 2018
people roasting marshmallows over a campfire
Research from the University of Waterloo found that only 21 per cent of Canadian campers identified as part of a minority. (iStock.com/MrsVega)

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I remember my last summer at camp vividly. Four years later, I could still take you on the camp tour, down the dirt road that runs along three sides of the property. A mix of sparse forest and field dotted by cabins, the camp featured a low ropes course, a climbing wall, and a campfire circle.

The tour ends at the dining hall, where campers line up before each meal. The counsellors stand above them, leaning on the railing of the deck and leading songs. I remember the first summer I stood on the deck, seeing a small sea of faces looking up at me. It was a strange kind of power — for one week, you were in charge of their safety, their health, and, above all, their happiness.

That kind of power makes you grow up fast. When I was a camper, I wanted to be just like my counsellors. When I had my own cabin, I realized, with no small amount of fear, that the six girls in my care felt the same way about me. I learned so much from being a leader — about friendship, relationships, love, spirituality, health, creativity, responsibility, and patience. But I also learned about trauma, insecurity, fear, and the other difficult things so many children deal with.

In the space of a few days away from home, many kids experience a sense of family they have never had. This is, of course, a good thing. However, it also means many open up about the problems they face at home.

During my second summer as a counsellor, I had one camper who was bigger than the other girls in my cabin. At nine years old, she was loud and energetic, but prone to moments of dark silence. I tried to reach her during one such moment and found myself talking about body image with a young girl who was acutely aware that her body didn’t match the other girls’. I did my best to talk to her, my heart pounding at the idea that this conversation could help shape the rest of her life.

There were many moments like that. There were also darker ones that involved phone calls to parents, or sit-down meetings. But most often, it was just a small comment or a slip of the tongue, enough to let me know they were going home to something more difficult than I could ever imagine.

Every kid benefits from camp. But in my experience, the ones who benefited most were the ones from those difficult situations — the ones whose parents couldn’t afford camp or who had turbulent home lives. Many were from the local Indigenous community or other minority groups. As the days passed, the quietest children would open up. By the end of the week, they were often the ones singing the loudest and giving the biggest hugs. Whatever they were going home to, you knew something good had happened to them that would never go away.

However, statistics show that most who attend camp are not those kinds of children. According to American Camping Association data, 42 per cent of American campers in 2015 were from middle-income families, and 36 per cent were from high-income families. Seventy-seven per cent identified as Caucasian. Data is less available in Canada, but a research project from the University of Waterloo in 2012 produced similar findings: only 21 per cent of Canadian campers identified as part of a minority.

There are many organizations trying to remedy this gap, such as the Amici Camping Charity, which works with 42 camps in Ontario to provide children from low-income families with the opportunity to experience overnight camps. The charity fundraises throughout the year to provide half the cost, and the other half is matched by the partner camp.

“Child care is something that a lot of low-income families have to struggle with, especially during the summer,” says Judy MacGowan, executive director of Amici. A former camper herself, MacGowan says camp made her who she is today.

Camp Smitty is a traditional summer camp run by the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa that focuses on groups often excluded from the camp experience. During March Break, Camp Smitty partners with the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre to provide facilities and staffing for a week-long cultural camp. During the influx of Syrian refugees, the camp reserved spots for newcomer children. Camp director Rosie Warden estimates that more than half the campers are from a visible minority group and stresses that no camper is turned away.

Warden says many campers come to Camp Smitty through Boys and Girls Club programs, which are largely made up of low-income and at-risk youth.

“We work a lot on building confidence, self esteem, communication, teamwork, leadership,” Warden says. “A lot of them say it’s their second home.”

That’s how Thai Tran felt when he went to Camp Trillium, a camp for children with cancer in the family. Camp Trillium runs more than 50 programs across Ontario each summer. During his sister’s second year of treatment, Tran and his family — eight children at the time — attended camp for free.

Tran went to camp every summer after, and it became the highlight of his year. At 15, he began training as a counsellor, and he’s been working there ever since.

“It’s amazing the kind of impact you can have as a counsellor on a kid,” Tran says. He recalls campers running up to him years later, brimming with excitement to see him.

Tran’s experience echoes the findings of a 2015 study on Chicago youth, which showed that community-based summer programs have a provable and positive impact on low-income, ethnic-minority youth. Results showed increased self-confidence and agency, as well as improved academic performance. This impact is one I saw with my own eyes; Warden and Tran see it now at their own camps.

The skills and experiences gained at camp stay with you for life. I credit camp for the confidence I gained as I grew from a shy camper into a counsellor who would do anything for my campers — whether that meant singing songs at the top of my lungs, leading canoe trips across the lake, or having difficult conversations about body image, family, and the world around us. The songs and conversations are still with me, and so is the confidence.

Rosa Saba is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa.

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