ROCKWOOD – The drive up the lane to Camp Brebeuf is inviting, with welcoming signs, a high ropes course marking the horizon, and acres and acres of nature.
However, the normal hum of children’s voices and hustle and bustle of activity are now missing. The dining hall and cabins are locked, the trails are grown over and even the pines chapel lays covered in wildflowers.
The once active grounds lay eerily quiet.
That’s because the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) to close Camp Brebeuf’s doors on March 13. No outdoor education programs ran after that date and this summer the cabins will remain empty to overnight campers as the camp shifts and adapts to these changing times.
But all is not lost. Brebeuf will offer an August day camp to far fewer campers than would normally experience the traditional overnight offering.
“We’ve been affected in a very negative way with the pandemic, as most organizations and companies both public and private have been affected,” said CYO executive director John Spatazzo.
“We have partnerships with the school boards but we are not operated by the school boards so therefore we pay our own taxes.
“We pay our own utilities, operationally, staff and since March 13 we have closed our doors and as a fee-for-service organization that is devastating.
“We’re in the balance of closing our doors … for an undisclosed amount of time.”
On average the whole of CYO (which owns Camp Brebeuf) has monthly expenses averaging $45,000 for items like property taxes, insurance, utilities, office and administration, technical infrastructure and maintenance.
To help weather the pandemic storm, the CYO is running a fundraising campaign at cyo.campbraingiving.com to ensure that all programs will continue when Ontario comes out the other side.
Camp Brebeuf began in 1941 and was originally run by the Diocese of Hamilton through the Jesuits and priests. What started out as a camp for underprivileged and challenging young men, soon turned into a summer camp facility.
In the early 1970s the CYO took over the camp and offered co-ed programming; however, boys and girls still attended on separate weeks.
In 1986 the camp turned into a year-round facility with outdoor education offered throughout the school year and overnight camps in the summer.
And primarily that’s how the program is run today, the only difference being boys and girls can attend any week of camp; there is no weekly separation.
The outdoor education program serves 17 school boards from across southern Ontario.
“If you lived in Hamilton and Guelph in more recent years, in Waterloo, there’s a very, very good chance that you went on a retreat or an outdoor education trip or a fun graduation trip to Camp Brebeuf,” said outdoor education coordinator Brendan Linwood.
“Those experiences that those kids have between those one to three days, however long their class is here for, are often the first time they’re away from home from their parents for an extended period of time, which is life changing.
“They’re being trusted with responsibility to make good choices with their peers.”
He said this is especially important for underprivileged students or those from intercity schools who may not get a similar opportunity throughout their youth.
“Part of our mission is to be accessible to everybody, not just physically and from a developmental accessibility perspective, but from a financial accessibility perspective,” Linwood said.
“So we get kids from underprivileged areas or areas where maybe the socioeconomic realities are different and it’s their first time toasting a marshmallow or tobogganing in the wintertime or whatever.
“Being able to provide those kinds of once-in-a-lifetime experiences for a lot of those kids can’t be replicated by an in-class experience or an experience somewhere that’s outside of their financial realities.
“It’s humbling to be a part of it, but it’s also critically important to those kids who rely on it for their one experience of something like this throughout elementary and high school.”
Spatazzo explained the outdoor education program is a way to step away from the classroom environment but still learn the necessary lessons outlined in the Ontario curriculum.
For example, when kids go tobogganing they’re often taught about weight, speed and inertia and how to make predictions and measurements for how far they would likely slide.
“The kids don’t recognize or realize that there’s actually an educational component. It’s they’re having fun and they’re doing measurements or metrics based on the results of what they’ve done,” he explained.
The summer camp is Brebeuf’s flagship offering, giving campers a true outdoor experience that includes swimming, fishing, archery, sleeping under the stars and more.
“The wonderful thing about summer camp is the family component to it, where we will all sit at dinner … and you sit as a family and … a lot of the kids that come to us we don’t know what they’re back history is,” Spatazzo said.
“We don’t know what their home environment is like and to be able to sit down as a ‘normal family’ and break bread and have conversation and laugh, may be foreign to some kids and others it’s just a continuation of what they do at home.
“But to be able to offer that and supply that to the young people … it’s just another component that often gets overlooked, just that gathering and having dinner and having meals and having three square meals.”
For Linwood the magic of Brebeuf comes down to the people.
“When I think about the people who gave up their summers in high school and university for low paying jobs in order to play at being heroes to whatever eight- to 13-year-olds and just do something worth doing instead of working somewhere where they might have been able to make more money or whatever,” he said.
“Just the people who gave that to me so that I could then pay it forward to other generations when it was my turn.”
Linwood was a camper in the early 2000s, went on to be a counsellor and now lives on-site full time with his family as the outdoor education coordinator.
“It’s a lifelong mission for me and I feel a huge amount of debt to the people who paved that road to continue to make sure it’s available to other people,” he said.
“I’m one of the very, very lucky ones who has gotten to translate that childhood experience into my full-time career and I realize there’s a very, very limited number of people who are able to do that.”
While the services Brebeuf offers in September will depend on the overall pandemic and education situation, Linwood said those working at the camp will push to offer whatever type of valuable experience they can for students.
“Even if that’s with more limitations, even if that’s with different boundaries and parameters in terms of what we can do and who comes here and everything else,” he said.
“As long as we are here we will continue to push those same values that have been part of our mission for the duration of our existence as an agency.”
This is where the camp is asking for the community’s help.
The camp has kicked off a fundraising campaign entitled “Keep the CYO Whole” to help Brebeuf and other CYO programs stay afloat throughout the pandemic so they can return to offering their programs when it’s safe to do so.
The goal is to raise $1 million. Each season the organization hopes to raise $250,000 to ensure CYO programs can continue post-pandemic.
In addition to Brebeuf, the CYO also offers a day camp called Camp Marydale in Mount Hope, an athletics program and youth ministry.
All of those programs have been cancelled due to COVID-19.
To learn more and donate to Keep the CYO Whole, visit cyo.campbraingiving.com.
To learn more about the August day camp offered at Camp Brebeuf, visit campbrebeuf.ca.