By Stephen Thorpe
The greatest thing about summer camp is its ability to unburden campers of their baggage and allow children to see the potential in themselves and the possibilities life can offer.
For three epic sessions of 10 nights each summer, kids from underprivileged families and troubled circumstances leave their woes behind and head Camp Smitty, the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa camp in Eaganville, Ontario.
It’s a diverse group, but you wouldn’t know it by about Day 2.
“Nobody at Camp Smitty is from anywhere,” says Rosie Warden, manager of Outdoor Education and Youth Leadership for the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa. “Everyone is from the same place when you come to camp.”
Campers might be struggling in school or have behavioural issues or family problems. At Camp Smitty, named for former NHLer and broadcaster Brian Smith, kids come and be comfortable with who they are.
“Nobody at Camp Smitty is from anywhere… Everyone is from the same place when you come to camp.”
“None of that follows them,” says Warden. “They’re able to be their own person and understand that they’re welcome no matter what.”
The camp benefits from the support of the Ottawa Senators Foundation, which provides funding for the approximately one in five Ottawa-area children who don’t have access to after-school sports, recreation or social activities.
The Sens Foundation, which is holding its annual telethon March 3, has enabled 1,500 kids from 50 communities to go to camps like Smitty.
Through the Boys and Girls Club, the foundation also finances the region’s only no-fee competitive sports league, encompassing hockey, soccer, basketball and athletics.
The foundation has built seven rinks in Ottawa, Smith’s Falls, and Gatineau, with plans for 13 more. And in partnership with Canadian Tire and the City of Ottawa, the foundation’s I Love to Skate program has provided 535 kids with new skates, helmets and skating lessons. I Love to Skate has given kids the opportunity to have a new experience, says Earl Jones, a program coordinator at Alexander Community Centre in Ottawa.
“Some of them are new to this country, some of them can’t afford skates, and some of them don’t socialize really well,” he says. “I Love to Skate gives them a chance to build on accomplishing little things, like being able to stand on skates.”
Warden has seen kids go from campers to counsellors at 16; Jones has seen them go from I Love to Skate to becoming mentors for younger children. The programs, he says, help kids grow.
“That’s about all you can ask for – is to give them the opportunity to feel like somebody cares about them,” Warden says. “There are so many different cultures in this community. Once everybody has that one thing in common – we all learn to skate – it gives them that rite of passage to be a Canadian.”
Warden says new kids often arrive at Camp Smitty uncertain about what’s in store. Young ones arriving for the first time can be shy and tentative. Older kids in the throes of adolescence can act like they’re too cool to go to camp.
“By the last day they can’t wait to come back next year.”
The camp doesn’t close its doors to anybody, including among its 100 or so campers are kids whose parents do pay their own way. It’s designed to build social skills around recreation.
A typical day will include activities such as running games in the afternoon and evening, with chosen skills education like canoeing, fishing, cooking, swimming or survival in the mornings.
Kids pick two skills to learn during their time at camp, the first session of which always begins the Monday after school closes – this year, it’s July 4.
They are also assigned to teams, each encompassing the full 8- to 16-year-old age range. The squads engage in team-building activities and challenges over the 10 days, earning points to win a championship at the end.
“We all live in a box. Society now – the world – is so much bigger than what you know. When you get the opportunity to explore a little bit, the possibilities are endless for some of these kids.”
“A lot of what the kids do is actually stuff they never get to do in the city,” says Warden, mentioning activities like swimming off a beach, sleeping in a cabin, tenting and the like. “The kids can just come and be comfortable with who they are.”
The Ottawa Senators Foundation, she says, is fundamental to the camp’s success. “I can’t say enough good things about them.” By supporting Camp Smitty and others like it, the Ottawa Senators Foundation gives children opportunities to grow. Camp counsellors see it all the time, she says, as kids’ attitudes and goals evolve, and they aim ever higher.
Says Warden: “We all live in a box. Society now – the world – is so much bigger than what you know. When you get the opportunity to explore a little bit, the possibilities are endless for some of these kids.”