“What I thought would be the last few days of my precious summer wasted, turned out to be the best four days of my life,” says 20-year-old Jeffrey Vallis who last summer attended Camp Aurora, a retreat for queer youth in Manitoba.
Camp Aurora, modelled after the precedent-setting Camp Fyrefly in Edmonton, is in its second year of operation and is one of a handful of camps in North America to offer the unique opportunity of community-building and leadership training to queer youth. The camp was spearheaded by two Winnipeggers who returned from a visit to Camp Fyrefly a couple years back and wanted to recreate a similar experience for youth here in Manitoba.
Last year’s camp saw 29 youth from the ages of 14 to 21 heading out of the city for a four-day retreat that some campers couldn’t help but call “life-changing.”
“The Camp gave me an awareness of the issues and the people in Winnipeg’s queer community,” says Vallis who admits how jaded he was by the kinds of people he was meeting in the city’s gay bars. “I didn’t have much experience with gay people other than the ones I was meeting at Gio’s and Desire [two gay bars in Winnipeg]. At Aurora I found people who were interested in getting involved in their community.”
The retreat prompted Vallis to become active in queer awareness groups in Winnipeg such as Project Pride and Young and Proud as well as motivating him to act as a mentor to other queer youth.
“Camp redefined who I am as both a person and gay youth. More importantly, it redefined my outlook on ‘gays’,” Vallis says.
The four day camp aims to strike a balance between leadership skill-building and recreation by intermingling workshops dealing with body-image, healthy sexuality and healthy relationships with activities such as rock-climbing, belly-dancing and art. The goal is to give youth the opportunity to explore and address issues of homophobia and transphobia in their community, to provide them with positive role models and to facilitate social inclusion for marginalized youth.
Tyson Conrad, whose experience as a camper at Aurora last summer led to a position as media spokesperson for the group, says that it was phenomenal to see how the campers changed over the four days.
“The campers became more comfortable with themselves and with their gender expressions and sexualities” says Conrad. “But more importantly,” he adds, “the retreat allowed campers to make friendships with people going through the same things as them — something that is invaluable.”
For this summer the steering committee for Camp Aurora chose to extend the length of the camp by half a day and has bumped the number of space for campers up to 40 allowing more youth to benefit from the retreat.
“We already have 18 people registered for the camp and the deadline isn’t until August,” Conrad enthused. “Getting the word out about Aurora has not been tough — people have been really excited about the Camp.”
So far Camp Aurora has received much of its funding from the Winnipeg Foundation and from volunteers who have donated their time to facilitate workshops at the Camp. This has removed most of the financial barriers for campers so that they need only pay $25 for the four-day retreat.
With only one year of experience behind its name, Camp Aurora has already found its way into the hearts and minds of Winnipeggers.
“The hope”, says Conrad “is that every year we can grow to allow more youth to be involved in the Camp. In the future we would like to have campers coming from all over Manitoba.”