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Sometimes, when you take the time to really find out what’s working and what’s not working, what you learn can surprise you.

That was the case when Moorelands Wilderness Camp decided to take a deep look into the services they were offering. This camp from Moorelands Community Services, a registered children’s charity, exists for kids who have no real access to the wilderness; it’s where kids from some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Toronto can experience 8 straight days of outdoor thrills and self-esteem building in a wilderness setting.

In 2000, Moorelands partnered with the University of Toronto on a study to examine what could be improved in the program. Together with a professor, they carried out in-depth surveys which the campers did as an activity. Though they knew the program at Moorelands had a significant impact on kids’ self-esteem, one of their findings was quite surprising.

“One of the key things we learned is that boys have way more anxiety about coming to camp than the girls do,” says Lynda Tilley, camp director. “Bonding as a community, sharing and allowing themselves to be vulnerable — that happens more naturally among the girls. Our research showed that boys need more spaces where they can express what they feel. Letting them know that it’s okay to talk — that you can be cool and still express emotions.”

From this feedback, Moorelands increased the emphasis on developing community and pride in being boys together in those communities. This included taking a look at everybody’s strengths, whether or not those were “typical” values for boys. “We started to focus a lot more on nurturing boys,” adds Lynda.

“Giving them the opportunity to speak, and speaking to them a little differently. We do this primarily through modelling the behaviour — positive role-modelling reaches them at a much deeper level.”

We were lucky enough to talk to one of the counsellors, Mike (nickname: ‘Eyeball’), about what this philosophy looks like in practice: “I love hanging out with the kids and I grow so much myself here — it almost doesn’t feel like a job. How we do things is so intentional that it reflects back onto the staff as well.”

Leading by example how to live in the woods – and in the world.

“A huge part is being the role model yourself,” adds Mike. “On the very first day they have to do a dock swim, and just swimming outdoors and being in a lake – some haven’t ever done that. So it’s up to me to be positive and excited about doing that first swim. And being in nature  — it’s amazing to walk in the woods and point out berries growing there and say, ‘hey this is a raspberry and yes, you can actually eat it.'”

As a counsellor, he enjoys the view of the world from a city kid’s perspective.

“It’s funny, their preconceptions about what nature is,” he adds. “To a lot of them, nature is dirty — and I’m there to show them, ‘hey, that’s actually a nest — and this is a bug, it’s actually kind of interesting.'”

Mike admits part of teaching kids how to enjoy the outdoors is letting them get a little grubby. “Being at camp is about living outdoors, it’s about showing them how being outside and maybe getting a little dirty isn’t a bad thing! If you’re doing a three-day or six-day canoe trip, there’s no showering! When they see that three older people are doing it they realize, hey it must be okay.”

It’s during these canoe trips that boys learn to build strong community with each other. Sleeping out under the stars is where the nurturing of the boys’ spirit happens.

“For me, one of the best moments happened my first year as a cabin leader. We were on a campout with the kids; it had just gotten dark and we were all lying in a circle with our heads together. I just listened to them talking — they were so amazed to see so many stars. I pointed out the Big Dipper and Draco, the dragon. They were so enthralled. And for me, it just clicked. I got to see how they experience camp.”

Moorelands campers’ parents contribute whatever they are able to the cost of an 8-day camp. Fundraising makes up the difference. To find out more about Moorelands Wilderness Camp please go to their website: http://www.sendmetocamp.ca/

Help fill the last 50 camp spots at Moorelands this August – there is a waiting list of kids who are ready to go! They can’t afford camp without extra help. The cost to send each kid to camp is $1000 per camp session – $50,000 in total. That’s the goal – every dollar makes a difference.

CLICK HERE to make a secure online donation. Whatever you can give – even $5 or $10 is greatly appreciated.



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