For some kids, going to camp can feel like a prison sentence.
When the Christie Lake Boy’s Camp opened in 1922, however, the camp was seen as a deterrent to jail.
Now, 90 years later, and with girls allowed to attend too, the camp founded by Judge J.F. McKinley as a place to send wayward boys who found themselves in trouble with the law, remains a haven for many inner city kids today.
“We go out, we actively pursue them (kids and parents) to give them an experience they wouldn’t otherwise have,” explained Jordan Goodridge, junior staff director, of the active pursuit model. “We try to make ourselves available to the campers, instead of them finding us.”
Goodridge has been coming to the camp as a staffer for several years, and his enthusiasm for the project is clearly infectious, his smile lighting up McKnight Hall, the camp’s cafeteria, after a cookie making class had ended, and as some counselors struck up a sing-along on the guitar. (And no, it was not “Kumbaya,” – try, “Wonderwall” by Oasis or “Time of Your Life” by Green Day.)
“The number one thing we want to develop is social skills and hard skills,” to help them in the workplace. Not only do they learn about social interaction, but also skills as disparate as nature, critical thinking, healthy workplace relationships, nature, swimming, cooking, and kayaking, and so on.
Many of the children at the camp are from inner-city communities and housing co-operatives in Ottawa, and their parents may not have the finances to be able to send their kids to camp.
“The majority of summer camps are geared towards the middle class and they have a cost attached to them,” said Goodridge. “Our cost can be absolutely free.”
“Financially it (regular camp) is a barrier,” said Marlene Quinton, the camp’s fundraising coordinator. “We work to remove those barriers.”
The camp benefits main kids, but parents as well.
“Parents (get) time to work out things in their own life and get a vacation from their kids,” said Goodridge.
The camp works with the Ottawa-based S.T.A.R. program (Skills Through Activity and Recreation).
“So many of these kids are so different,” said Goodridge. “The staff notice these differences,” which can be exacerbated once a child is taken away from an urban environment and placed in a completely rural one, in which they share a cabin with several other campers. Some campers take to it right away, while others struggle to adjust.
“A lot of the time, they are different from the city than they are in the country,” said Goodridge.
At a recent end-of-session banquet, Goodridge and several staffers were nearly in tears as a young girl with cerebral palsy, who had stayed in Cabin Four, described to the assembled how “she felt so welcome here. She could be herself here,” said Goodridge.
“Still thinking about it warms my heart,” said Goodridge.
He saw another youngster in his care who “did a complete 180 degree turn,” during his time at the lake.
But the kids seldom have time to get homesick, or ruminate on the differences.
“It’s like go, go, go here,” said Goodridge. “It’s like jam-packed days. It keeps them busy.”
Goodridge, a native of the west end Toronto suburb of Mississauga, is a medical student at Queen’s University in Kingston, but he keeps coming back to the camp because of the kids.
“They keep coming back every year,” said Quinton. “They could be making money in some government office making big bucks.”
“My friends ask me, ‘Shouldn’t you be trying to make as much money as possible?’” admits Goodridge. “(But) I absolutely love it, which is why I am here again, obviously. This place is magical. It changes lives.”
It certainly changed his life. His stepfather worked with one of the camp’s shining lights, Dr. Dan Offord, a child psychologist who revamped many of the camp’s programs, to reflect and teach “the skills needed to turn their lives around” under the motto that they wanted to “make the race fair” for the kids, who may not have had the head start that their middle class friends did because of situations beyond their control, like poverty and abuse. Goodridge’s father brought his family up to experience the camp for themselves, when he was only 12.
“We were only going to stay for the weekend,” Goodridge recalled. “We stayed for a week.”
At the age of 15, Goodridge started working at the camp, and has not looked back since. This summer also marks his sister’s ninth summer working at the camp, this year as a program director.
“A lot of the staff have been campers before and then they move on up,” said Goodridge.
“It’s nice to see how they develop from camper to staff… They already know a lot of the rules.”
The staff are “very sensitive” to problems that kids may bring with them from home, like bed-wetting.
“Some campers will come up to you and say, ‘Oh, I wet the bed,’” said Goodridge. “Others are a lot more self conscious.”
So, the counselor will instead do a round up of any dirty laundry in the morning, and ask if anyone needs anything to be washed.
“It helps them save face,” said Goodridge.
Any group of children certainly needs discipline, and Christie Lake is no exception.
“We try not to be too bossy,” said Goodridge. “We’re here to have fun,” but they try to be authoritative without a confrontational tone.