Making Camp a Safe Place to Learn and Grow

Ontario Camps Association

For a parent sending their child to camp, be it a day camp or overnight camp, it can be a very emotional experience. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first time or the tenth time; parents will always worry about the safety and wellbeing of their child when they are not in their care.

This is what makes the work of the Ontario Camps Association (OCA) so important: it gives parents and children peace of mind knowing that safety is foremost. OCA makes camps a safe, fun place to learn and grow.

OCA is a voluntary, not-for-profit association of 450 member camps that serves as a leader in organized camping through the standardization of the camp experience, advocating for camps and campers across the province. Today, there are approximately 650 year-round standards that are in place to optimize the camp experience for a diverse contingent of camps and campers.

The OCA is governed by a Board of Directors, twelve duly elected members who represent all facets of the camp community, and is supported by the work of twenty-six standing committees and task forces to ensure that the 250,000 staff and volunteers and nearly half-a-million attendees have the best possible camp experience.

Though it is the goal of the OCA to continuously grow its membership and the number of camps that ascribe to the standards and accreditation of the organization, there are thousands of camps in Ontario that are as diverse as those who work and attend them. “For us, we have people working in overnight camps, day camps, privately owned, municipally owned, those run by organizations like the YMCA and Girl Guides, those that are religious,” explained OCA President and Executive Director of Camp Wenonah and The Camp Wenonah Centre for Outdoor Education Jeff Bradshaw.

The OCA helps these camps find common ground, encouraging people to work together for the common good and safety. Camps can be organized around a diverse range of topics to address the varied interests and needs of children province-wide. There are computer camps, outdoor camps, music camps, engineering camps, athletic camps, and so much more.

Considering the diversity of its membership and attendees, OCA brings together the various stakeholders in the camp industry that represent its diverse membership under one umbrella dedicated to a shared vision. This vision, explains Bradshaw, is that, “We come together to celebrate the big idea of children being engaged in summer camp.”

For the organization’s Executive Director Joy Levy, who joined the organization this year, it was the “opportunity to work with a multitude of different, really eclectic individuals within the camping industry,” that was one of the most exciting prospects of working with OCA.

One of the ways OCA and its diverse membership come together is through its annual conference and trade show. This year’s conference was OCA Connects, and that’s exactly what it did: it connected the membership over three days of information, learning and fun.

The high-energy event takes place every February and is the largest gathering of outdoor education and camping professionals in Canada, serving as the largest tradeshow/exhibit hall in organized camping. The event is in its 87th year and this year, over 500 delegates attended the forty-plus distinct workshops and a series of keynotes that were offered on topics such as education, healthcare, the business of camp, leadership, research, equity and diversity, government advocacy, outdoor education, and much more.

The Outdoor Education Committee is just under two years old but has already done great work providing a stronger voice for outdoor education within OCA and across the province. The committee also provides training in outdoor education to create more opportunities for parents, educators and the broader community to better understand the value and importance of outdoor education for youth.

For Bradshaw, “It’s not so much that a child goes to our summer camp, but a child has a summer camp experience. And so, for that to happen, it needs to have a large community with choice that provides safe, healthy experiences for kids.”

One of the ways OCA is bringing camp into the lives of children who could really benefit from it is through the refugee summer camp program which began in 2016. At that time, member camps made space available to refugee children free of charge to help them overcome the hard times they endured, giving them an opportunity to adjust, integrate and learn to be a kid again.

Participation in this program has doubled year-to-year and hundreds of refugee children have had the opportunity to experience camp for their first time. While it’s a heartwarming story, it certainly wasn’t without its challenges.

Both the happy moments and the struggles that come along with sending a refugee child to camp have been documented in New Homeland, a documentary by Barbara Kopple that follows five recently settled refugee children from Syria and Iraq on their inaugural camp experience. The documentary was recently screened and was used to raise funds to send children to camp.

The boys featured in the film attended Pathfinder, an OCA member camp, and the film chronicles their journey, from leaving their parents – an already difficult moment exacerbated by the hardships faced by these families in times of war and fleeing – to the camp experience and the process of their fresh start. Not all were successful, but the film provided a raw image of what it is like for newcomers to the country and the highs and lows of integration.

Through events like its annual conference and the refugee summer camp program, OCA is dedicated to serving the needs of its members and looks to continuously improve the value of the membership it offers.

When Levy came into the organization as Executive Director earlier this year – a role that was previously vacant for almost a year – she did an environmental scan to evaluate what works and what doesn’t work, and built a plan to elevate the organization and its impact.

“Customer satisfaction is huge for me and our camps are our customers, so we want to make sure that we are supporting our camps to the fullest,” explained Levy. This approach includes strengthening the team at OCA as well as the organization’s communications and marketing strategy to more efficiently move projects along and better connect the membership base.

There is also a plan to improve the organization’s digital footprint, from the website to its internal operations, giving it a better online interface and reducing reliance on paper. In the process, the organization will become more streamlined and more environmentally sustainable to take better care of the environment that enables the various camp experiences.

Levy also hopes to see a job fair established by 2020 to “increase the exposure and the support around camp as an industry that high school guidance counsellors can market to their students.” Bradshaw is a prime example of someone who grew up in camps his entire life and identified it a career path for himself, and Levy hopes other young people can do the same.

Camp is not only a great place for campers, it’s a great place for staff and volunteers to learn leadership skills, gain invaluable employment experience, make friendships that will last a lifetime and even climb the corporate ladder. There are countless opportunities for young people in the camp industry, as campers, staff and volunteers, and while there are thousands of camps to choose from, OCA accredited camps have gone the extra mile to ensure that they offer the safest, best experiences possible.

Camp is a place where youth can learn, have fun and grow, making memories that are sure to last a lifetime, and it is with great hope that eventually all camps are certified to these standards to ensure children province-wide enjoy the same benefits of a standardized, safe and happy camp experience.

August 22, 2019, 5:43 AM EDT

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