What Great Camps are Made Of

Ontario Camps Association (OCA)

Camp is where relationships are forged, skills are developed, and individuals have the opportunity to build character and have fun. Camp provides people with a chance to be free, to collaborate, to learn about oneself and the environment. It also happens to be a $500 million industry in the province of Ontario.
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To say Ontario is an ideal location for camping is an understatement. The province’s natural endowments include over 250 000 lakes, more than 100 000 kilometres of rivers, and a balance of unbridled wilderness, serene nature, spectacular vistas, groomed parks, beaches, trails and recreational facilities to take advantage of.

In Ontario there are camps large and small, co-ed, girls and boys, and family camps, remote and urban, private or municipal, those that offer specialized or generalized programming and those that address a broad spectrum of needs for campers who can range from four to 80 years of age.

“Our oldest camp is from 1884 and what camp means today is not the traditional type of camp that everyone had to go to when we first opened up,” explained Heather Heagle, executive director of the Ontario Camps Association (OCA). In the past, “It was canoeing, learning how to build fires, how to cook over open fires, how to make tents, how to make lodges to make sure that you were comfortable and dry when you were tripping. [Today’s camps are specialized] and also include all of the things that were done in traditional camps.”

She went on to describe the myriad camp programs being offered today. “It could be computers, engineering; it’s about water, it’s about art, it’s about piano, it’s about dance, it’s about creative photography and video, it’s about canoe making, it’s about you name it: food, we have food camps. We have all kinds of camps. It’s so diverse.”

Each year, over 400 000 campers attend camps in Ontario, and programs are administered by a team of upwards of 250 000 camp staff and volunteers. While there are hundreds of camps that offer camp programming in Ontario, only 462 camps have received OCA Accreditation.

OCA is a voluntary, not-for-profit organization that is a leader in organized camping. It has built a global reputation for the standardization of, and advocacy for, the camping industry. The Association promotes the many benefits of camp while encouraging participation in the various accredited day camps, overnight camps and tripping experiences that are offered in the province.

OCA began in the early 20s when private camp owners, agencies, educators, churches and others who were directly involved with camps at the time, came together to share information and best practices to standardize the camp experience. They would informally meet before camp started each year and as the demand for camps grew, so too did OCA’s role in establishing Year-round Standards to ensure a fun, safe, healthy and welcoming environment for all.

After the end of World War I, the popularity of camps continued to grow as society was changing, placing a greater demand on child care and camp programs. More and more women were entering the workforce and agriculture was being replaced by industrialization, leaving children unsupervised in the summer months. “Camps started growing because more people were working and summers weren’t as agricultural,” Heagle explained. “People didn’t need extra help from their families on the farm.”

By the time of OCA’s incorporation in 1932 there were a total of 56 camps in operation. At the end of World War II, the number of camps increased to 100 and continued to grow from there. From 2000 to the present, the number of camps grew from 200 to 462 Accredited camps.

“It really boomed because people saw the value of camp. Both parents are working now in the summer months and it’s a place for kids to go to that is safe and that is a learning place – learning about themselves, learning about new skills – which also heightens the awareness of who you are and what you can do with your life,” Heagle explained.

“School is about growing the mind with regards to what’s out there, but camp is about growing who you are, what kind of a team player you are, what kind of a leader you are, what risks you are willing to take and how you help others in this world to move forward,” said Heagle.

There are over 600 Year-round Standards that camps are required to comply with and audits occur every four years to ensure camps are complying with these Year-round Standards. In addition to standardization, OCA has evolved to embody an advocacy role as well. “We’re working on all kinds of issues that include advocacy and lobbying of the government, and that’s working quite well,” shared Heagle. “We have shifted… from a singular core group to more of a nucleus of many people working on many committees,” to ensure camp needs are being met.

Inclusion is a very important part of what OCA does. Currently, 265 camps in Ontario are inclusive or offer needs-based programming. The goal is to have 100 percent of camps be accessible and inclusive over the next decade.

“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are coming from or what different ability you have, you should have the opportunity to go to camp. Camp has opened the world to these kids and these families but it’s also opened up the camps to having to look at different cultural expressions,” commented Heagle.

Another area of focus for OCA is funding. For lower income families, funding camp programs and activities can be a challenge. There are multiple funding sources available to make camp accessible financially for children from every socio-economic background.

“As the executive director for the industry, I have experienced unbelievable support from people across the province. They are willing to open their doors and support or give help in so many ways. You know, one camp helps the other as an entity, but it’s the people within that help as well,” said Heagle.

A great example of this outreach at work is the refugee summer camp program that began in 2016. OCA asked its accredited camps to make space available to refugee children free of charge. The first year, 45 camps participated in this effort and in 2017, 90 camps have signed on.

“OCA camps around Ontario opened their camps, at no charge, to 400 new Canadians from Syria. Campers included children and full families. Camps welcomed the opportunity to introduce camp experiences to all ages, especially to parents, so that they would understand how wonderful camp is,” shared Heagle, who explained that the participants were thankful for the experience.

Another specialized summer program has been developed for First Nations Youth in the province. A pilot project will bring together American and Canadian youth with tripping experience together with indigenous youth from northern communities for a cross-cultural exchange that includes a variety of activities on land, flat water and open water. “They are going to meet for the first time in August, where they will be given land training. Aboriginal youth will train their tripping partners about living off the land and the experienced tripping campers will teach their new paddling partners how to paddle and how to pack for their tripping journey,” noted Heagle.

This project has attracted the support of the Rotary Club as well as many other tripping camps who are interested in a similar exchange. Not only are programs being developed for First Nations Youth, relationships are being built with Elders and communities across Ontario.

“Elders are going into camps and talking to the kids about the importance of the land, what it means to them and about the water and the history of Turtle Island,” explained Heagle. Most importantly, there is the value of OCA bringing multi-generational, cross-cultural knowledge to campers to enhance the overall camp experience.

Camp activities are administered by camp staff who are vetted and trained. Indeed, camp not only benefits campers; the experience of working at a camp is invaluable for résumés, building skills and networks that would not otherwise be possible in other part-time summer positions. “It’s that personal experience that you have, skills that you learn, contacts that you make and the knowledge that you glean as a youth worker with kids that sets your foundation of who you are and where you can go and what you can do. It opens the horizons greatly because you’ve got experience that most people attain in their late 20s and 30s,” said Heagle.

Heagle and OCA Members are working tirelessly to grow the number of accredited camps in Ontario to ensure that all camps are operating according to agreed-upon Year-round Standards and best practices, working with communities, health care professionals, and educators to do so. Efforts are also being made to attract new campers and staff to sustain camp programs in the province.

At this time, plans are in progress to implement a Camp Director’s Program that may be offered at the college or university level. Individuals will learn how to manage and operate a camp effectively to ensure safety, skills, self-esteem, a sense of caring and well-being for the environment, strong community ties and life-long memories.

OCA remains committed to Accrediting the best possible camps, creating the best possible camp experiences and helping youth to become the best possible version of themselves, doing so in a way that offers parents peace of mind, trusting their children are in good hands. To learn more about OCA and camps across Ontario you can visit OCA’s website at www.ontariocamps.ca, or the Trent University Archives which have preserved the organization’s history in the digital age for all to reference.

May 29, 2020, 2:40 AM EDT