As Director of Gem Lake Wilderness Camp, facing the government mandate that overnight camps are not allowed to operate, my specific area of ministry, looks very different this year from what it has in the last 12 years.
In January and February of 2020 life seemed normal when we held our usual five winter camps at our remote island camp in Nopiming Provincial Park. When we returned from our final camp in early March, suddenly nothing seemed normal anymore.
The Drop-in programs, clubs and discipleship groups that run year-round out of the Inner City Youth Alive center in the North End of Winnipeg were forced to downsize and soon close. The North End is one of the most under-resourced parts of the city and struggles with poverty, addiction, a lack of good housing and food stores in the best of times. ICYA is categorized as an essential service in our community, so our offices could remain open even though we couldn’t run Drop-in programs for our local youth. Our staff team quickly realized that the needs in our community were increasing, while the physical connections we were used to having with them were largely not available to us anymore.
The North End does not have big box food stores like most communities. As the pandemic increasingly made essentials harder to come by, the prices at our local corner stores rose sharply. Toilet paper, if it was available at all, was double, triple or more the normal price. ICYA purchased a large quantity of toilet paper and began selling it to the community at cost out of a walk-up window. We also secured a grant which enabled us to deliver food and activity hampers to 250 to 300 homes each week. Our Community Ministers delivered ready-cooked meals to individuals living in “trap houses” and homeless camps. Many of these individuals are trapped in meth addiction and could finally have a meal after not eating for days. We also created care packs for single moms to help with supplies for their young children.
The Manitoba government continued to extend an indefinite ban on overnight camps. We clung to hope that things would be sorted out sufficiently by summer so that we might be able to resume overnight camping program. We put together our summer staff team and moved ahead in faith, but as summer approached it became obvious that no overnight camping would be allowed. Switching to a day-camp model was not an option for us because of the travel distance to Gem Lake.
I made inquiry about the possibility of having our staff stay at Gem Lake for a training event without running day camps, and the authorities gave permission for us to move ahead. We planned a 15-day staff training event at Gem Lake. We taught physical camp skills, personal devotions, went through a “Christianity Explored” program together and did some much-needed camp maintenance, since we had not been allowed to have our usual work groups help us in spring. We also prepared and recorded seven Mini-Church sessions, complete with skits, follow-up talks and personal stories from our lives that related to the theme of the Mini-Church sessions. After recording them we posted them on our Facebook page and sent the links out to all the campers who could not come to Gem Lake this summer. We had many positive comments from campers who appreciated being able to participate in a small part of camp even though they could not be there personally. It was also a good exercise to test physical distancing and disinfection protocols on site so we would know what to expect and work on if we are allowed to run overnight camps this coming summer.
Our Drop-in staff ran several small day camps in the city during the summer and has continued virtual contact with youth and their families in our community. Some in person one-on-one interactions and small drop-in groups could continue and depending on restriction levels.
In spring we put together a small fleet of bicycles as a safe-distanced activity. Online watch-parties and games are a positive interaction with some. Drop-in staff has been tutoring students to help them with online learning. Before Christmas I took a number of small groups out to cut Christmas trees for their families and have a wiener roast in the bush. I have also been helping Matt, my camp program coordinator, with a cooking program. He asks youth for food ideas that they would like to learn how to make. I help Matt prepare the ingredients pack for each of the youth which is dropped off at their home. The following day he does a live online cooking show where they all cook the recipe in their own homes. The response has been great, ranging from those who are learning new skills, to those having pride in providing a meal for their family, to joy for an activity to do together with a parent or sibling, to thankfulness for having one good meal to look forward to in their week.
These activities are great fun and positive, but the end goal is to continue building trusting relationships with youth in our community and directing them toward God. I am reminded of the former camper who contacted me when his girlfriend and son were recently killed in an automobile accident. He was so thankful to share with someone and to know that someone is praying for him. Or the girl who asked during a Christmas tree cutting trip, “You guys are Christians right?”… “Is it true that all Christians are homophobic?” and then the opportunity for an honest conversation clarifying God’s love for her. Another former camp staff messaged late at night asking for prayer against demonic attacks and addictions. We all hope that things get back to normal soon, but are so thankful for the continued connection our team has with the youth in our community.
Please pray for:
– Safety as our staff team connects with the community.
– Creativity when connecting in ways that are new to us.
– The many students in our community who are not in school and not participating in distance learning. Our staff is working on strategies to ensure that they do not fall by the wayside once schools are running normally again.
– Wisdom as we plan for next summer’s camps, while not knowing the parameters we are working with.
– The hearts of our youth.
– Endurance and spiritual depth in our staff team.
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Gord and Beckie Klassen
Director of Gem Lake Wilderness Camp
Inner City Youth Alive