During his first day at summer camp almost two decades ago, Joe Douglas received an unexpected gift: a vote of confidence in his leadership potential.
He was nine, maybe 10 years old – trying to find solid footing amid the shifting sands of family life and learning how to get along in a roughedges neighbourhood that rewarded bravado more than bravery.
“I was a good kid but it wouldn’t have taken much for me to have taken a completely different path,” he says today.
The pivot-point was his aunt’s suggestion that Joe and his brother attend the United Way-funded Stevenson Children’s Camp near Dorchester.
Fellow campers voted Joe leader of the day the morning he arrived. And later, when he helped a non-swimmer play a game in the pool, the lifeguard commended him for his kindness.
Fast-forward into adulthood, Joe is now serving as executive director of Stevenson Camp and says those moments changed how he thought about himself. “It’s those little things that feel big when you’re a kid. People believed in me. They saw my potential.”
Today, Joe and his team of counsellors, leaders and other staff strive to work that same magic in each of the 768 kids who visit every summer.
Campers don’t just learn archery, swimming and silly supper songs. They experience – some of them for the first time – what it’s like to be a kid. What it’s like to hear someone declare their worth.
They learn to find and follow their life’s compass.
“It’s not just a kid going to a camp for a week during the summer. It’s much larger than that,” Joe says.
Surrounded by people who care
One in four children in this region is part of a family living below the poverty line. Through donor dollars, United Way Elgin Middlesex proudly supports Stevenson Children’s camp and numerous other programs, projects and services to prevent and reduce poverty and give all kids a place to belong (see sidebar for more).
Kids who come to Stevenson Camp – where the fee is a nominal $25/week, and sometimes nothing at all – are referred from local schools, community resource centres, Children’s Aid Society of London & Middlesex and other agencies and groups.
While they have diverse backgrounds and unique histories, they share a common need, says Joe: “To be loved. To be believed in. To be safe. They need to be trusted. They need to be surrounded by people who care.
“Here, they’re able to just be kids and flourish and have friendships. They don’t have to be the tough kid or the silly kid or whatever layers they had to put on at school or at home. They get to be their true selves, and then they can take back home a bit of who they really are.”
They learn to take appropriate risks, on the low-ropes course or wayfinding through the woods. “Some of them are so used to failing, they’re afraid to try new things – even sleeping away from home for a week is a really big thing. We give them the confidence to try.”
Camp inspired Joe to earn a diploma in child and youth work. Camp is also where he met his wife Jes, where they both worked and where she continues to be a key volunteer.
Most of the leaders-in-training, counsellors and staff are former campers. Some make their way to become early-childhood educators or youth workers and social workers.
And so, the cycle of leaders growing new leaders continues, even if it isn’t immediately apparent while making s’mores around a campfire.
“Some of these seeds we’re planting, we’re not going to see the results right away,” Joe says. “And then years later, you see a young adult who tells you, ‘Everyone gave up on me, but you didn’t,’ and they’re now in child-focused careers, helping other kids.”