5 min

Experience your dreams

Summer camp teaches kids to love and respect each other

Credit: Robin Perelle

Imagine going to a summer camp with queer counsellors-a camp where it’s okay to be who you are, where diversity is celebrated and where individuality is “cool.”

“Youth is so much about ‘you’re not cool enough, you don’t fit into this group, you’re gay, you’ve got purple hair, you’ve got a tattoo, you’re this, you’re that’-all these things that make you socially unacceptable and then you take all this in and never are yourself.” Jessy Wollen, camp director, is a strict believer in good food, good times and above all else, teaching respect and co-operation to a diverse collection of special needs and low-income children.

“I love intentionally creating community,” she says.

The community she creates is Camp Experience Your Dreams (EYD), a five-day summer camp where kids aged eight to 13 are encouraged to be themselves and, above all else, respect everyone they meet. This fall, 67 disadvantaged kids from the Downtown Eastside and the Sunshine Coast are heading back to school potentially transformed by a new perspective of inclusion.

“Camp EYD is queer friendly because I don’t think anybody should be segregated because of what they believe or who they love. I think that adults inflict racism and judgement, hate and hurting on kids. I don’t think kids come into this world not liking people. I think that adults teach kids that,” Wollen says.

“I’m strict about it,” she continues. “I think it’s so important that kids are constantly in a diverse environment where everyone is loved, accepted, and cherished.”

Wollen makes a point of hiring many queer counsellors each year. This year, she added a trans woman to the staff. “When the kids see that we’re all accepting this person and all loving this person and not making it any different than anybody else, that becomes normal-it’s not even an issue. It becomes an issue as soon as the child is taught there’s something wrong,” the Simon Fraser University anthropology major points out.

“Every year, new volunteers bring more exciting, creative ideas,” she adds.

This is Sharai Mustatia’s second year as a support staff counsellor at the camp. Her speciality is working with at-risk kids and counselling campers who go off by themselves. “Sometimes I wash dishes, clean the toilet, you know,” adds the 34-year-old queer woman, a psychology major at the First Nations University of Canada in Regina.

Mustatia remembers one young guy who was feeling angry about what was going on in his life. “And you get to a place like Camp Experience Your Dreams and you get to relax and have a good time but there’s all this frustration that you’re still dealing with inside. Needing your space and not knowing how to say that, it ends up being ‘you faggot.’ I just addressed it as: ‘what’s going on for you right now?’ and not talking about homophobia but respect, saying ‘we need to be safe here and when you’re using those kinds of words that doesn’t feel safe for some people.'”

Wollen laughs, “if you were in dire straits-say somebody just hit you and you’re down on the ground on the street-Sharai would walk by and go, ‘are you okay?’ She would help you up and then she would give you space to react in whatever way. You could scream and yell and spit in her face and she’d be like, ‘okay, I just need to tell you that I’m here to support you in whatever way you need.’ And then she’d just wait. She is the greatest supporter that you could ever have,” Wollen testifies. “She’s solid.”

“I’ve changed,” Mustatia says. “After I went to camp, I started realizing that I needed to start making some of my own dreams come true. I had been working on some projects but not having a direction where I was going in my life. I went to camp and I felt super inspired. For me it’s not only about helping kids make their dreams come true, it’s about us helping each other to make our dreams come true-the counsellors and the kids.”

“I remember last year, Sharai totally touched me when she shared this First Nations song,” Wollen says. “It wasn’t in the white-camp-counsellor style of ‘gather round kids we’re gonna do a song.’ The bags were packed, it was the last day, and Sharai wanted to share something with everyone so she stood up and closed her eyes and shared this song-and everyone was silent,” Wollen recalls. “It felt very culturally different than the way things are normally run in a white institution. It was a learning lesson for me. I’m very indoctrinated from Camp Elphinstone, in ‘okay guys, I’m up at the front, listen to me,’ and it was so cool to realize that there are so many different ways of leading.”

Before she started her own camp in 2001, Wollen attended the YMCA’s Camp Elphinstone for years, gaining perspective as both a camper and a counsellor. She later pursued an education in theatre arts, worked as a child advocate and travelled to Europe to work on an organic farm. A backpacking sojourn through Morocco sensitized her to “lots of different cultures and languages. It was a great experience.”

As for her own sexual identity, Wollen is very candid: “I’m the queerest heterosexual woman you’d ever want to meet,” she says. “I love women. I love men. I love the man that I live with and my three-year-old stepson. So I’m totally happy taking on Queer as a label for myself-I think I just fall in love with people. I’ve been very much conditioned to believe that heterosexual is my way but I’m totally attracted to and turned on by women,” Wollen confides.

Not only does the 24-year-old powerhouse run Camp EYD, she also solicits the funds to keep it afloat. “The camp is funded by me going around and asking people for money,” she shrugs. “A lot of people just donate stuff. It comes up in conversation; people just drop out of the universe into my lap and present that they have a lot of money so I tell them about camp.”

But the barter system also thrives at Wollen’s camp. One First Nations woman donated eight salmon to send her kids to camp. “We had eight beautiful fish,” Wollen sighs.

“I know the Sechelt Nation,” she continues. “I grew up in Roberts Creek, right where we’re camping, so it’s right in the heart of my heart.”

Camp EYD is on the Sunshine Coast at the Camp Byng Boy Scout camp. “It’s beautiful there,” Wollen says, describing the mountains, old growth forest complete with meadows, trails and a mile of oceanfront. “Kids left last year saying, ‘it’s really weird, Jessy, but my body feels like it has more energy.’

“I have a soft spot for kids,” Wollen continues. “I care a lot about people. I live in East Van [and] I see a lot of people in major pain, shaking from drugs, and it makes me feel like, why the fuck don’t more people care? And it makes me mad. I just think the only way things are going to change in the world is if people do stuff rather than talk about it.

“This is my form of being political,” she notes. “I’m not at the front of the picket line. I’m a sit-back, brainstorm, teach the kids and hope that they get something out of it [kind of person].”

* To register for Camp Experience Your Dreams, contact The Sunshine Coast Regional District. To make a donation, contact The Sunshine Coast Community Services. For more information: