Volunteering as an Outdoor Activity Instructor in Canada

Written by: Victoria Cullum


I volunteered as a camp counsellor at a camp for children and adults with disabilities in Canada. Camp Rotary is a peaceful place when it’s empty of people, overlooking Grand Lake with its own stretch of private beach and a swamp full of turtles and bullfrogs It is in a really beautiful location. But the magic of camp doesn’t exist without the campers.

When Tattoo (our camp director) started speaking about the ‘magic of camp’, I have to say that I was a little sceptical but both he and all the returning staff bought into the idea so completely – they told their stories of how they’d come to work at camp and explained why they kept coming back, I remember thinking that their connection to camp was intense and I wondered if I would ever feel the same. As soon as I began my first week in a cabin and met my first six campers, my entire attitude to camp changed. I realised that ‘magic’ really is the only word to describe what happens at Camp Rotary: it is a place where anyone can be themselves without shame and where everyone is encouraged to do what they want –
including things they never thought they could.

One especially wonderful moment was with Danielle, a 19 year old camper with Cerebral Palsy. Her disease was so crippling that she couldn’t speak, found it difficult to walk and needed a lot of help with eating and drinking. There was always an hour’s rest period after lunch, during which campers could order tuck (a can of fizzy drink and a packet of crisps, usually) and rest. Danielle needed a straw to be able to drink unaided and in the bustle of lunch time we would never remember to pick up a straw for her, which meant that one of us would always have to run and get her one. One lunch time Danielle got up at the end of her meal and went to get a straw from the counter. When I asked her what she’d got it for, she gestured to me until I understood that she’d retrieved it to save me from having to run and get her one. It may sound like nothing, but that moment touched my heart profoundly; that someone with as much to deal with in her life as Danielle would have time to worry about me. My days were filled with similar humbling experiences; every one of them just as moving as that moment.

Camp routine was intensive; we would wake-up at 7 every morning, and sing the national anthem (“Oh Canadaaaaa!”) before breakfast.

Morning sessions included things like archery, arts and crafts or sports and games. One morning a week, we would take our campers down to the beach and go canoeing and sailing on the lake. Afternoons were for swimming and then dinner. The evening programme took place between dinner and bedtime. Whichever four campers were on rota that day would be given a theme and asked to come up with a storyline and characters, we then had to entertain our campers by giving them tasks to do that involved them with the storyline, which was amazing fun.

At the end of every week we would put on a campfire where counsellors and campers would perform skits on the stage, we were encouraged to be as silly as possible. On the campers’ final evening we would organise a dance and everyone would get dressed up and just dance for hours. One week, whilst dancing to ‘I’ve Had the Time of my Life’, I experienced another incredibly powerful moment. While the song was playing one of the campers turned to me and said, “That’s so true; I really have had the time of my life this week.”

Within the eight weeks I spent at Camp Rotary, I worked with children as young as 7 to adults up to the age of 80 with both cognitive and physical disabilities. There were some really difficult moments mixed in with the extraordinary: I dealt with violence, depression, arguments and sickness, but those things didn’t have a negative impact on my experience. If anything, they enhanced it, because those are the moments that taught me the most. I learned the values of patience and understanding and, most importantly, the ability to see the funny side of a bad situation. It’s difficult to explain what it feels like to have such an effect on another person’s life. For most of my campers, camp is more than a fun way to fill a week during summer; it is something they look forward to all year. Some of our older campers come from care homes and would normally spend most (if not all) of their time inside, so for them camp is beyond thrilling: it is freedom. Camp allows them to feel like their lives aren’t all about their disability.

When I look back on my summer now that I’ve returned home, I see how much the experience has changed me. Inside, I’m still the same girl I was when I left, with the same values and the same dreams, but one very important thing has changed: Camp Rotary will always have a place in my heart, because of the people that I met there and the life-changing experiences that I shared with them. I now have a new understanding of the word ‘compassion’ and a better grasp of the things that really count in life.