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Queer youth camp seeks to expand nationally

fYrefly empowers young people to challenge hostile environments

University of Alberta researcher Kris Wells says youth are coming out younger, and their families are supporting them. Credit: uofaweb.ualberta.ca

The University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services has launched a $5-million fundraising campaign that will expand their groundbreaking camp for queer youth to every province and territory.

Camp fYrefly is a national leadership retreat for sexual-minority and gender-variant youth aged 14 to 24. It was launched in 2004 by University of Alberta researchers and educators André Grace and Kris Wells to help queer and trans youth develop the leadership skills and resilience necessary for them to become agents of change in their schools, families and communities.

The campaign, which received a lead gift of $500,000 from the Stollery Charitable Foundation at its recent launch, has so far raised $1 million.

“We have a lot of interest from communities across the country who keep asking, ‘Will you bring the camp here?’” Wells tells Xtra. “Last year in Edmonton alone, we had 100 youth apply and could only take 50.

Wells says his motto is “The camp is four days; what about the other 361?”

“Some call it an oasis away from homophobia, heteronormativity and transphobia in their regular lives,” he says.

There are currently fYrefly locations in Edmonton, as well as a Saskatchewan camp that alternates between Regina and Saskatoon. A Calgary-area camp will be launched this July in Cochrane, Alberta. Wells says communities in Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, the BC Interior, Yellowknife and Whitehorse have expressed interest, but no announcements on new locations will be made until there are concrete plans.

“Right now we’re looking to raise the funds so we have the ability to go into communities and work with communities,” he says. “Communities get involved in lots of ways through programming through the camps, committees that support the camp programming, marketing, fundraising, volunteers and parents.

“We have a 10-year history of a proven and award-winning program, so this campaign is in large part allowing us to scale up the research and services at the institute to reach more youth in need and work with more communities across this country, but also policymakers, government and social institutions.”

Wells notes that Camp fYrefly is the world’s only sexual- and gender-minority youth leadership camp that’s affiliated with a major research institution. He says the backing of the university allows the camp to immediately turn cutting-edge research into programs and services.

“We’re seeing tremendous movement in our country. I believe we’re on the verge of a tipping point, and we’re seeing that bubble up in our schools with changes to our policies, as well as more societal awareness,” he says. “More people are standing up to discrimination. It’s not about special rights nor minority rights, but human rights.”

Wells says the battle for equality is now happening in schools and points to a new generation of youth that he refers to as “generation queer.”

“They are no longer going to be silent victims,” he says. “That’s what fYrefly does; it empowers them with those leadership skills not only to challenge those hostile environments when it’s safe to do so, but also transform them.

“Youth are coming out at younger and younger ages and their families are supporting them; they are asking their schools how they are going to protect and respect their child and his or her identity, because it’s in fact the law,” he says.

“If a school receives one dollar of public funds, it’s beholden to the Charter, whether it’s a private, charter, public or Catholic institution.”

For more information on Camp fYrefly, visit fyrefly.ualberta.ca.