For the past 10 years, Harry Stewart, president of the Welcome Friend Association, has hosted 2SLGBTQ youth at Rainbow Camp, an inclusive and safe space for queer or “rainbow” youth.
Now, due to COVID-19 restrictions, he is continuing to support these youth by shifting the activities to the virtual Zoom world in a new program called “Rainbow Online Connection” (ROC). “At first we were going to just cancel the camp because we didn’t think it could compare,” says Stewart.
But while it’s not in-person, youth, ages 12-17 will still be able to access programming in three major streams: education and activism, artistic endeavours, and active outdoors. There will even be group games, challenges, a talent show and other virtual competitions.
“It won’t be the same by any means. The campers will really miss those cabin times together and the bonding that occurs there. But the good news is that we can still connect people and provide that sense of belonging and community.”
Stewart says resources in Northern Ontario for 2SLGBTQ youth have been scarce.
“And even when they are available,” says Stewart. “These youth – and their parents – can experience a great deal of isolation.”
Not only are many forced to live in the closet or are gender mislabeled, but Stewart says their sense of isolation and experiences of discrimination have resulted in a high suicide rate. Last year was Rainbow Camp’s biggest turn-out with over 200 campers, many who travel from all over Canada to get here.
“It’s one of the few places that allows for these kids to be with others that are like themselves,” says Stewart. “We had one camper who said he never thought he’d see an adult trans person. He thought they’d never existed. Having trans counsellors there to help trans youth has been life-changing.”
Rainbow Camp provides a judgement-free space for youth to explore their identities, enjoy the basic pleasures of camping and outdoor life, and receive mentorship from 2SLGBTQ counselors. There is a one to two ratio of counsellors to campers. In the Zoom-version of camp, there will be a variety of activities and, as with the regular in-person camp, youth can choose which ones they want to participate in. There will be acivities from arts and crafts to yoga classes to trans workshops to sex education.
“Rainbow Online Connection will serve our campers with the opportunity to connect virtually this summer through at- home activities and staff-led interactive programming. The goal of this program is to create a virtual space for LGBT youth to connect with peers who are like them so they feel less alone during these isolating times of COVID-19,” says Rainbow Camp Director Stephanie Voyer.
The only hitch is the funding.
ROC needs $20,000 to run its online camp (an anonymous donor will match all donations) and will soon kick into fundraising mode.
Those who wish to help can do so at helprainbowcamp.ca. Stewart encourages those who can donate even $5 to do so. Those who are able to donate up to $1,000 will get a half hour Zoom date with either Jann Arden, Canadian songstress, or CBC’s Colin Mochrie of Whose Line Is It Anyway fame.
Check out their Instagram handle @rainbowcamp to see pics of past Rainbow Camp activities.