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'It's devastating’: Staff shortage forces Rainbow Camp to close

'We have a high-risk group of kids who require a lot. After two weeks, our staff just couldn’t keep up with their needs,' says Rainbow Camp co-founder Harry Stewart
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Rainbow Camp file photo

ECHO BAY — For the first time in its 11-year history, Welcome Friend Association’s Rainbow Camp in Echo Bay has been forced to shut down for the remainder of its 2023 season due to a staffing shortage.

“It feels like crap to be honest,” Rainbow Camp co-founder Harry Stewart told SooToday. “You work all year to do this. At the end of the day, it comes down to not enough people.”

Alongside his husband Chris Southin, Stewart has been running Rainbow Camp at Camp Wakonda in the summer months for 2SLGBTQ+ youth since 2012.

The camp provides an inclusive and safe space for kids from across the country and beyond to be their true selves while enjoying a plethora of outdoor opportunities and games like archery, canoeing, swimming, basketball, and more.

Stewart says they were originally looking for 32 staff members this year, but they only managed to fill 23 spots. After several staff members had to leave for personal reasons earlier this month, the camp had no other choice but to cease operations.  

“We had the bare minimum when we started, then we lost two staff members within two weeks which took us below the bare minimum,” Stewart says. “Our staff were just beat – they weren’t getting their breaks. We had campers there for the first time for two weeks in a row, so there was no real break for them. It was never designed to happen that way.”

“We have a high-risk group of kids who require a lot,” he adds. “After two weeks, our staff just couldn’t keep up with their needs.”

Rainbow Camp isn’t alone in the staffing crisis as Camp MacDougall, which has operated for 63 years just west of Thessalon, was also forced to cancel their summer program last week which left families feeling heartbroken.

Stewart says Rainbow Camp managed to complete four sessions in the first two weeks of July, including a pair of one-week camps for 32 and 37 campers respectively, a two-week adventure camp with five campers, and a two-week ‘Leaders in Training’ program for seven LITs.

The camp’s co-founders told SooToday the toughest part of closing for the rest of the 2023 season is the feeling of letting down the kids and their families who rely on their programs and services.

“There are some really sad stories out there of parents struggling with their kids, and they were looking at our camp as something really positive for them,” Stewart says. “It’s really heartbreaking.”

Rainbow Camp received a number of emails from parents who were understanding of the situation but voiced their anguish for their children.

“Our child has poor mental health and was looking forward to going to camp, so this was very difficult news for them,” one parent wrote.

“My son is going to be devastated,” another said. “Literally this is the only thing he had to look forward to all summer and he is struggling so much to make friends.”

Stewart and Southin say they will begin looking for staff in September for the 2024 season, which they feel confident will give them plenty of lead time to be better positioned for next year.

Full press release below:

************************************

Rainbow Camp® (Northern Ontario Location) Shuttered for the Season

Staff Stretched Too Thin; Leadership Team Left No Choice

(July 15, 2023, Sault Ste. Marie, ON) It is with heavy hearts that the Board of Welcome Friend Association announces that the rest of Northern Ontario’s Rainbow Camp® 2023 season will not continue due to staff shortages.

The leadership team tried to fill the gaps, but it wasn’t sustainable: “Staff were burnt out,” said Stewart. “Campers this year had a higher rate of mental health issues which only increased the strain on staff.  Our number one priority is camper safety – both physically and mentally, so we can’t run short-staffed when so many of our campers are considered high-risk.” 

Parents and campers are now being notified that the remaining five weeks of camp and one Leaders in Training session have been cancelled, effective immediately.

“Over 140 campers will be affected by this decision, and that is heartbreaking,” said Harry Stewart, co-founder of the camp. “The need and want is there, but we just don’t have the staff. We were at a bare minimum of staff to start the season and then lost a couple of staff due to family/medical reasons. The pressure on our staff was too much.”

Rainbow Camp® Atlantic, in its first year of operations, and ongoing registrations of 22 campers, is still a go as they are working in partnership with Camp Kidston in Nova Scotia.

Rainbow Camp® successfully completed four sessions in the first two weeks of July, including: two one-week camps, for 32 and 37 campers respectively; a two-week adventure camp with 5 campers (the maximum allowable); and a 2-week Leaders in Training program for 7 LITs.

Stewart hopes that next year they will be able to attract sufficient staff to run the full session of camps.

About Rainbow Camp

Rainbow Camp is a welcoming, inclusive, safe space for 2SLGBTQ+ youth ages 12-18 to experience summer camp. Founded in 2012 by husbands Harry Stewart and Chris Southin, and run by members of the LGBTQ+ community (including many former campers), Rainbow Camp is committed to developing a camp community honouring creativity, individual choice, and social justice, while having fun. Situated in the pristine wilderness just East of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, Rainbow Camp has welcomed over 500 campers from across North America since 2012. Campers call it a life-changing experience, and in some cases, a life-saving experience. Stewart and Southin received the Governor General's Meritorious Service Medal for co-founding Rainbow Camp and for their work in support of LGBTQ2S+ youth. The camp is organized by the Welcome Friend Association, a registered charity that provides outreach to and support for people affected by gender and sexual issues. In 2023, an Atlantic version of Rainbow Camp opened, in partnership with Camp Kidston in Nova Scotia. Rainbow Camp’s celebrity champions are Colin Mochrie and his wife Deb McGrath, and their daughter Kinley. www.WelcomeFriend.ca

For more information, please contact:

Harry Stewart, Chair/President

Welcome Friend Association

1-888-909-2234 Ext 105 (toll free)

[email protected]


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Alex Flood

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