Welcome Friends Association. It only takes a Spark.
Dr. Deborah Woodman, and Harry Stewart are two Charter members of Welcome Friend Association, and by extension, Rainbow Camp. The first of its’ kind in Ontario, Rainbow Camp takes place for a week in the summer, on the shores of Lake Huron, just outside of Thessalon, Ontario at Camp McDougall. The United Church of Canada camp site, has been welcoming young people, counsellors, counsellors in training and adults to come together around the Vespers campfire since 1960.
A serendipitous connection through her PhD work in north eastern Ontario (Timmins, Cochrane, Iroquois Falls areas) on forestry issues led Dr. Deborah Woodman to her current work with Algoma University, where she teaches Sociology and Anthropology. At about that time, Harry Stewart, local champion for issues related to Queer (LGBTQ+) individuals in community approached Celia Ross, former Algoma University President (1998-2010) and others at Algoma U. The intent was to draw from a wider group of people who may have a shared vision for bringing people together both from within the Queer community, as well as individuals who identify as Allied. It was through this initial effort that Harry Stewart and Dr. Deborah Woodman, among others, came together and began to develop the Welcome Friend Association, WFA.
Welcome Friend Association began conversations that led to a conference event called ‘Focus on the Gay Family’ which included sharing stories, and training people in ‘how to be welcoming to the queer community.’ Through his membership in The United Church of Canada, Harry was able to encourage members from within communities of faith to participate in the first conference, where ‘affirming congregations’ training took place, among other workshops.
“There are so many people who have lived their whole lives in the Sault who are afraid to come out of the closet.” and “People who are older even, and may have retired back to the Sault. The intent of the first conference event was to bring as many people together as possible, to bring people into a common understanding of issues relating to gender and sexuality. To draw the circle wide.” said Dr. Deborah Woodman.
During the ‘Welcoming Training’ portion of the conference, Deborah reflected on a particularly poignant moment when a gentleman stood up and said “To come out to people (as queer) is an act of faith. When I do this, I trust you with my identity, and how I understand myself to be. I’m taking it on faith that you will appreciate the gift I’ve given you. Coming out to people is an act of faith in other people. That we are trusting you with who we are.” Powerful words to be sure.
During the first conference, a spark was lit, leading to more connections. “We found wonderful Allies, within The United Church and others from the Sault community who were there to support us.” There was another conference a year later, which continued to build momentum, leading ultimately to a recognition that a safe space for young people to come together as queer (LGBTQ+) and allied youth was needed.
Dr. Woodman introduced the idea of a summer camp to the WFA Board of Directors, and the rest, is history. WFA’s Rainbow Camp was born, and is planning for its’ fourth year operating at the Camp McDougall site. From the sparks ignited at a local conference in 2009, embers in a camp fire would burn at a place called Rainbow Camp.
“Rainbow Camp is running July 5 -10, 2015, and is open to youth ages 13-17 from all across Ontario and beyond.” shared Harry Stewart, WFA’s President and Chair. “WFA supports costs associated with travel, and accommodation for campers. We work really hard at providing a safe space for youth at Rainbow Camp, including a 1:1 ratio of counsellors to campers. Some young people, while attending camp, may find that this is the first time they can be who they really are. A place where they can fully embrace and express their authentic self, including potentially, a name change. A name they claim as their true identity.” Harry went on to share that “campers are assigned to cabins based on their age, not their gender. During the week at Camp McDougall, the washroom facilities are totally gender neutral.”
Dr. Deborah Woodman has applied her background in education to develop a curriculum as part of the Rainbow Camp experience.
“Youth embrace the chance to become educated about the queer community. They actively look for ways to deconstruct the world around them. By bringing them information, and by giving youth opportunities to develop and use language around their experiences, especially around gender and sexuality issues, they are better equipped for their lives outside of Rainbow Camp.” adding “Education is a way to free our mind. Education has a way of transforming our lives.”
Reflecting on the week at Rainbow Camp, Deborah shared “The foundation of camp is this amazing space in nature where we do lots of traditional things like campfires, arts and crafts, and games playing in outdoor spaces, and of course singing. Especially around the campfire at night. In and amongst this place, are some very powerful conversations. We are whole people. We are more than our sexual orientation and gender. We gain strength from each other. Through all of this, we see that the young people attending camp start to give rise to their own voice and stories. It’s a remarkable time. Many of the youth at Rainbow Camp are vulnerable. They have been through a lot. There is pain there. They gain strength from each other. We have campers who have come back every year, some who have now become counsellors.” An intentional team approach, where the spiritual self, the physical self, the mindful self, and the unknown self can find peace, and perhaps for the first time, find value, respect, understanding, grace. Rainbow Camp is that place for young people.
A recent successful Trillium Grant application in the amount of $65,000 offered WFA the opportunity to hire an individual, Heidi Werner, to help facilitate business development, secure funding, and develop a strategic plan. The week at Camp McDougall is financially supported through ongoing fundraising efforts, including the upcoming sold out TD Bank Groups’ Rick Mercer Show ‘A Nation worth Ranting About’ on Saturday, May 15th. The show will open with Adam Proulx and his ‘Baker’s Dozen. 12 Angry Puppets’ Show. Originally from The Sault, Adam Proulxs’ star continues to rise.
Bringing the sold out show to the Kiwanis Community Theatre Centre was further made possible through a partnership with The Algoma Water Tower Inn and Suites. “Donna Hilsinger (Algoma Water Towers’ General Manager) has been a tremendous support to WFA.” shared Harry Stewart.
As the summer camp season gets closer, Rainbow Camp will no doubt be at capacity. There is room for 35 campers July 5-10, to enjoy a L. Huron shoreline, outdoor wild space, at Camp McDougall, United Church of Canada. It only takes a spark. And an act of faith.
WFA plans events all year long. If you are interested in learning more, or deepening your understanding of Queer, (LGBTQ+) or language to help shape meaningful conversations, and of course, Rainbow Camp visit http://www.welcomefriend.ca/