For many queer kids, summer camp is a horrible, hetero experience.
This summer, youth will have a new opportunity to find a safe space at the Welcome Friend Association’s new Rainbow Camp program.
The program will offer a traditional summer-camp experience in an environment where queer youth and their friends and family can be themselves, make friends and have fun, coordinators say.
The idea was put in motion after the association hosted two conferences to bring together the faith and queer communities.
“One of the things we realized was we needed to have spaces where people could talk about their experiences in the community,” says Deb Woodman, the camp coordinator.
The camp is aimed at queer youth aged 13 to 17, a time of life when kids deal with coming out, bullying and suicide, Woodman says.
“What we can do is help people understand that there are people who will listen, that they have places they can go, and that they are not alone,” she says.
But the camp won’t focus only on heavy topics. In fact, coordinators are hoping it will be one place where youth don’t have to face any of that. They hope participants will have a fun summer-camp experience, complete with arts and crafts, outdoor activities, theatre, sports and more. Woodman emphasizes that the youth will be in a space where their sexuality or gender identity won’t cause a sideways glance.
Harry Stewart and his partner, Chris Southin, founded the Welcome Friend Association in 2008.
When people come out as gay, they often find themselves losing family, friends and their faith community, Woodman says. The Welcome Friend Association’s conferences are about encouraging the queer and faith communities to be more accepting of each other.
Stewart and Woodman hope to create something similar with Rainbow Camp.
“We need to make those spaces everywhere, and that’s what this is about,” Woodman says. “We don’t need to lose any more youth in Southern Ontario.”
Stewart says he will count the camp as a success if campers feel they are in a safe space, make new friends, keep connections with fellow campers, and know they are not alone in the community, whether local or national.
Ottawa-area camps have been drawing queer youth to retreats for years.
In 2004, Camp Ten Oaks, a weeklong sleep-away camp for queer youth ages eight to 17, and Project Acorn, a youth leadership retreat for queer youth ages 17 to 24, were created in response to the lack of summer programming for queer youth, says Lee Rose, board president of the Ten Oaks Project.
With similar goals to Rainbow Camp, Camp Ten Oaks strives to be a safe space where kids can be themselves and have a great summer-camp experience. Project Acorn is aimed at queer youth interested in building connections and getting involved in their communities, says Rose, who adds that there is a clear difference in campers’ attitudes between the bus ride to camp and the ride back. “[You can see] the community building in four days.”
The campers become more extroverted, confident and connected to one another, he says.
Erica Butler, who participated in Project Acorn last year, is a member of this year’s youth advisory committee.
She describes the retreat as four days of intense emotional experiences, plus crafts, workshops and other fun camp activities.
“I don’t know if it’s possible to replicate the atmosphere outside of camp,” she says. “I walked away with a better understanding of myself and my community in general.”
She says she gained so much confidence at Project Acorn that she was able to speak at the vigil for Jamie Hubley last October in front of 200 people, something she never would have done before.
She says she also learned about creating safe spaces, a skill she tries to incorporate into her volunteer work with youth.
“It’s difficult to comprehend, until you go to the camp, what a wonderful environment it is,” she says. “I went knowing nobody and left with tons of friends.”
Butler says this year’s Project Acorn is still in the planning stages, but applications will be available in April.