For many, summer camp is an essential childhood experience. With thousands of camps across the country, summer camp is undeniably a large part of our Canadian culture. As such, they represent far more than a childcare solution. In fact, research shows the summer tradition can play an important role in socialization, learning new skills, rewarding less-common learning styles, fostering independence and, eventually, honing leadership skills.
In an article for online mental health resource Psych Central, licensed psychologist and family therapist Marie Hartwell-Walker writes, “Camp brochures tend to emphasize all the sports, crafts and fun that camps offer. Most of them sound, and are, truly wonderful. But … when a camp program is well-conceived and well-executed, your child will come home with an expanded sense of self and enhanced self-esteem.”
Unfortunately, packing up and heading to summer camp isn’t so easy for kids affected by childhood cancer. There are the obvious medical obstacles faced by those undergoing chemotherapy or requiring blood transfusions. There are accessibility concerns for kids in wheelchairs. There’s also pressure on family finances and mental health challenges that don’t only affect kids battling cancer, but their siblings as well.
Camp Oochigeas, fondly known as Camp Ooch, has worked tirelessly to tear down barriers that stop kids affected by childhood cancer from attending summer camp. Over 35 years, the privately funded charity has grown to offer 1,600 campers and their families the quintessential Canadian camp experience each year by providing all of their programs for free. Some of the children attend day camps throughout Ontario or attend in-hospital programs. Meanwhile, others stay at Camp Ooch’s lakeside overnight camp in Muskoka.
The 400-acre site is nothing short of remarkable. It’s the only camp in Canada able to administer IV chemotherapy and blood transfusions so kids don’t have to go home when they need treatment. It offers a special camp program just for bereaved siblings who lost a brother or sister to cancer. All facilities are wheelchair accessible and there’s a staff-driven all-terrain vehicle to navigate any tricky paths. There’s even a three-level adventure/ropes course with a wheelchair-accessible level. Then there’s all the typical camp activities like gymnastics, kayaking, archery, arts and crafts, karate, swimming and even ukulele lessons.
This is what over 200 Camp Ooch supporters took in when they visited the property for the inaugural Ooch Bonfire Bash in August. While many philanthropists had provided financial support for years, few had actually experienced the magic of Ooch firsthand. At the event, they were treated to a traditional Camp Ooch welcome through a tunnel of colourful pool noodles, embarked on a treasure hunt to discover the camp’s facilities and dined in the accessible Gatts’s Lodge dining hall. The evening ended with a rollicking “Sweet Caroline” singalong followed by a campfire concert by cover band Dwayne Gretzky.
While the evening raised enough to fund a full session of camp, Ooch has larger aspirations. There are still over 2,400 kids affected by childhood cancer in Ontario who don’t have access to an oncology camp. “Ooch brings confidence, resiliency and independence to more than 1,600 Campers each year, but we are ready to do more. Our aspiration is to serve every child and family in Ontario affected by childhood cancer. That’s more than 4,000 kids and their families,” says CEO Alex Robertson.
Fundraising events and individual donations are what allow Camp Ooch to survive and grow. It doesn’t receive any government funding, yet is on a constant mission to expand and update its facilities. In 2017, Ooch added the new dining hall ahead of schedule thanks to a timely donation. They also built new, more accessible cabins that year. In 2018, there were improvements to the Med Shed, beloved Slaight Arts and Music Centre and volunteer housing. The camp is currently working on adding more accessible pathways around its grounds.
While summer camp is an important experience for any child, it can be even more impactful for those facing difficult life circumstances. In particular, those affected by cancer can have a hard time relating to peers at school or may feel self-conscious about their condition. They may not be able to regularly participate in physical activities due to a lack of community facilities. The ability to bond with others who share similar experiences at such a young age is incredibly impactful. Regaining the ability to participate in everyday physical activities and even water sports is an unparalleled confidence booster.
Cancer shouldn’t dictate whether a child has access to vital socialization opportunities, acquires new skills or grows more independent. Yet, with all these benefits, the most powerful thing about Camp Ooch can still be summed up in one line: They allow kids to just be kids.