4 min

Nurtured by mighty Oaks

Summer camp for gay kids, kids of gay parents

Credit: (Peter Knippel)

Twelve-year-old Holly Francoeur says that before going to Nova Scotia’s Rainbow Spirit Camp she thought she was the only one in the world who had a gay parent.

She says school was tough because kids teased her all the time.

“One kid said having a gay parent was the worst thing that could ever happen,” says Holly. “I was a different person. I was an alien from a different planet.”

But after attending the summer camp for children of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans families, Holly says she has met lots of other kids with families like hers. She says the camp was great and that other kids should have the same experience.

Now Ottawa-area children will have the opportunity to attend a queer-positive camp this summer – thanks to a new local program.

Camp Ten Oaks will be running its first summer sleep-away program from Aug 21-27. The camp will be held on a 108-acre campsite 45 minutes from Ottawa in the Gatineau Hills.

Camp Ten Oaks was co-founded by Holly Wagg and Julia Alarie last April.

“Homophobia is very much an ingrained part of our school system here, and part of our culture,” says Wagg. “We are creating a space away from that which allows kids just to be kids.”

Between April and August 2004, Camp Ten Oaks conducted a needs assessment survey. Over 80 percent of the survey’s respondents supported a summer camp program for the gay and lesbian community. Since then camp planning has been in full force.

Camp Ten Oaks will provide a variety of activities for children aged 8 to 16. Its lakefront location will be used for swimming, canoeing and kayaking. And then there are the arts, sports and other outdoor activities.

Along with traditional programming, Camp Ten Oaks will also offer social justice activities.

“Parts of the day will be spent talking about things like sexism, the environment, the media, racism and how they may impact kids’ everyday lives,” says Wagg.

Chantal Leon’s 12-year-old daughter has already signed up for Camp Ten Oaks.

Leon says the camp is a great initiative for kids and parents.

“As a parent I know my daughter is going to be in a setting where she can just be herself. No matter what she says, she won’t get rejected by the group.”

Katherine Arnup is a professor at Carleton University and one of the country’s leading experts on queer families.

She says common school activities put children of queer families in difficult situations. Kids are forced at school to either immediately out themselves, or cover up their families.

“When they meet a new friend, when they have a new teacher, when they come into a classroom they come out or they don’t. They’re making these decisions all the time,” Arnup says.

Holly says she kept her father’s sexuality a secret at her new school for three months, until she finally had to tell somebody. She says that her camp experience made it easier to come out, and that she is happy she did.

“The camp really encouraged me to tell more people. I felt so much better once I told one person and it got around, and then everyone started asking me [about my family],” she says. “I think that because I told [everyone], I’m even getting better grades.”

Arnup agrees that an environment like Camp Ten Oaks is great for children.

“The idea of being somewhere where you’re just regular and where you’re accepted can be very important.”

One of the longest running camps for children of gay and lesbian families is New Jersey-based Mountain Meadow. The camp, 14 years old, currently accepts 80 campers and has a waiting list every year.

Executive director Carolyn Thompson says Mountain Meadow has had a huge impact on many of the campers’ lives.

“When kids realize they’re not alone and they’re not the only ones with this family structure, we see their self-esteem skyrocket,” she says.

Thompson also says more summer camps for children of queer families are needed.

“Mountain Meadow cannot be one of the only ones doing this work. I think Camp Ten Oaks is a phenomenal opportunity,” she says

Camp Ten Oaks has made its program accessible for all children, regardless of their family’s income.

Camp fees will operate on a sliding scale. Parents are asked to take family size and household income into consideration, but decide themselves how much they will pay.

“If you’re a single parent with three children you obviously cannot afford to pay as much as someone who has a two-parent family with one child,” says Wagg. “We believe at Camp Ten Oaks that every kid deserves to have a summer camp experience.

The sliding scale creates a difference between the cost of camp and camper fees.

“It costs us $600 per camper per week to go to Camp Ten Oaks. We anticipate that most families will pay between $100 and $200 to attend. So it’s up to us to fund the difference,” says Wagg.

Finding that difference hasn’t been easy.

Alarie and Wagg funded the initial phases of the project themselves. Since receiving charitable status in February, Camp Ten Oaks has been busy applying for funding grants.

The camp had their first major fundraiser in March, a bowl-a-thon that raised $4,000.

Alarie says the event was very successful, but to have a camp this summer more funds are needed.

“To hold the summer camp program in August we need to raise $15,000,” says Alarie. “Our March goal was $5,000 and we were just shy of that.”

Camp Ten Oaks will be holding additional fundraisers before the summer.

Alarie says it’s important that the project can sustain itself, but that she and Wagg are dedicated to having camp.

“If we are two or three thousand dollars short we’re not going to be in a situation where we decide not to run camp,” says Alarie. “Myself and Holly will sit down and decide to pay from our own pockets.”

But Alarie’s main concern isn’t the money.

She says Camp Ten Oaks is about having a positive space for gay youth and children of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans families.

“These kids often have to blend in every day of their lives. For this one week, blending in isn’t an issue. They just get to be kids.”

Camper registration is open to everyone. All kids are encouraged to come and experience Camp Ten Oaks.