My kids have been campers for years. For the past few years I have heard great things about Ontario Pioneer Camp. But until recently we had no experience with the camp ourselves. That changed last month when we drove to Huntsville in the stunning Muskoka area of Ontario and took part in Ontario Pioneer Camp Blogger’s Weekend. What a fun weekend it was!
Camp is a big investment. It’s an investment in your child. It’s also an investment in you as a parent. BUT, before you book any camp you need to know what to expect. Camp is one of those rites of passage that relies on Word of Mom. How do you find a camp that fits your child? You ask your friends and family members and eventually you learn of one that is just perfect. For years I have heard that Ontario Pioneer Camp is one of the best camps in Ontario. Several friends send their kids to OPC. What could be so different about this camp, I wondered?
Let’s start with the moment we arrived. We drove in from London on a Friday night and were one of the last families to arrive. A lovely counsellor met us at our van, literally as soon as we opened the doors. We were expected. We were greeted and asked if we needed help with our suitcases or sleeping bags. We were shown to the camper’s quarters in the adventure boy’s camp area. Bunks for the kids and singles for us. There were showers attached to each room and it looked like about 6 kids would fit per room. There were T-shirts, snacks and bottled water in our rooms for each family. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate bottled water when I travel. Then Tangled, all the camp counsellors have quirky nicknames, took us to the building where camp skits are put on. A camp fire was happening after that.
The skits were comical and there was some audience participation, then we moved on to camp fire. My kids are city kids and we never do campfires so this is a big treat for them. We made sure to cover our legs and feet and applied bug spray liberally and we followed the path to the fire pit area where we sat, listened, and had some fun. Breakfast started at 7 and our day was going to be packed so straight to bed for my crew and for most of the other families too.
Camp is often a big leap for parents and kids. Being able to tour a camp and see what they do and interact with staff makes a gigantic difference as a parent. Booking camps can be a lot harder and a massive leap of faith for anyone with kids who have unique needs. Believe me, I know. It took years to find a camp that suited my youngest daughter, Ainsley. I often write about her unique challenges with sensory processing disorder and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. I remember years of starts and stops with camps. I recall trying a YMCA day camp once when she was four and having to drop it when I realized it was a terrible fit. There were many stabs at day camps. Eventually, we hit something that worked. Now she loves the camps she does. But we typically stick to tried and true, you know, the ones that work. Which is why I was taken aback when she asked to do Ontario Pioneer Camp as soon as our Blogger’s Weekend was over.
Ainsley is a super athletic girl. She loves doing anything sporty. So she loved our full agenda on the Saturday that we did camp. We started with a great nutritious breakfast. THIS I CANNOT SAY ENOUGH ABOUT. We had food – real food. Good food. That made a dramatic impression on me. I did camp when I was a child in Staynor, Guelph and various areas of southern Ontario. I always hated the food I had at camp. I was not a very picky eater. I just didn’t enjoy Franks N Beans and hot dogs and mushy foods. So I was stunned to find bacon and eggs, plenty of fresh salads, and really good food available at Ontario Pioneer Camp. In fact I commented on that and was told that was something camp prided itself on. There are many camp counsellors that are there helping all summer and they need to be kept healthy as well, said the marketing director. I LIKE THAT. A Lot.
After a hearty breakfast, plenty of water for me and coffee too…we headed out to learn about activities of the morning. The adventure area with Low and High ropes was our starting point.
The ropes course has a high and low area and this was a lot of fun. Kids can challenge themselves or warm up on the low ropes. I liked the low ropes course. It’s tucked away in the forest and you only had to peek up when you heard a noise to spy deer hiding behind rocks.
My older daughter has anxiety disorder. She has always loved day camps. But overnight camp was more challenging. I’d ask her every year from 6 on if she wanted to do camp and the reply was always: “I’m not ready yet.” As her Mom, I respected that. Then one year she was suddenly ready to do sleepover church camp for one week in July with a classmate. It was just one hour from our home. She loved it and begged to return year after year. When she goes I always make sure someone on staff understands anxiety and also understands medication if she needs any.
Going to camp is hard enough when your kids are neuro-typical. But when they have any sort of special needs it becomes an entirely different ball game. As a parent of children with special needs, I need to be able to trust someone else to care for these gals for a week or maybe even two and that is not something that happens often, nor is it something I take lightly. Ontario Pioneer Camp is inclusive and has been inclusive for 35 years now. They have an inclusion director and they have a program and in fact they’ve earned awards for their inclusion program.
How does it work? Well…Visit this page for more information. More on that later…
The activities staff were awesome and they come from all over the world. I was pretty impressed. Also OPC has an amazing leadership program. Give it some thought if your child is a teen. A new partnership with World Vision Canada is exciting to me as a parent and as a blogger who often writes about my connection to World Vision Canada’s meaningful work. Simply explained to me, many leadership candidates at OPC will show a different range of skills that can be built with an eye towards the future through this new partnership.
After lunch we hopped in the war canoe and headed to another part of the expansive 2,500 acres that Ontario Pioneer Camp is on and we navigated and sang some ridiculous camp songs. Eventually we stopped where there’s a lodge. We played a great game of Lodgeball. Dodgeball in the lodge. Parents against kids. Guess who won? Kids of course.
The canoe part and Lodge Ball was a lot of fun. My daughter is still talking about that actually. After that we had a beach party.
OPC is one of nine Inter-Varsity camps across Canada operating under the names Circle Square and Pioneer. Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship has been providing summer camps and year-round programs for children, youth, young adults, and families since 1929.
The kids had a bit of fun soaking the counsellors and cooling off. The weather was scorching. Clearwater Lake is beautiful and big. The girl’s camp area is directly across the lake from the boy’s area. There are shuttles that bring the girls over to do some of the activities on this side of the lake.
And somewhere in there during that afternoon we also played a crazy game of flame battlers, a team activity with water balloons and a camp fire that the other team tries to extinguish. Honestly just send your kids to camp so they can see that. It was so much fun! But a little too much fun for a few of the parents who wiped out badly.
Boy were we hungry after that busy day. After a great dinner, we heard some more about camp, and their programs. Then later had a cake decorating contest. This was ours. I thought it felt like a cruise ship but the kids were calling it a castle wth a moat and a small tribute to OPC on the top. SO MUCH YUM!
What Matters to Me When I Book Camp as a Parent of Kids With Unique Needs:
- I want to know that the camp offers an inclusive program and that they walk the walk. Too many agencies and camps and schools talk inclusion but don’t practice it.
- I need to know they can support my child. I need to know they will get her and enjoy spending time with her and try to get to know her.
- I need to know that this is a camp that understands not all disabilities are visible.
- I need to know that camp doesn’t cost me twice as much just because my child has special needs. NOBODY can afford that, especially a parent of a child with special needs heading to camp.
- I need to know where hospitals are.
- I need to know qualifications of counsellors. Are they extremely young and inexperienced or do they have a great skill set that makes them someone my daughter can look up to?
- I need to know that there is a nurse and or doctor available if needed. I need to trust them with medications for a week or two and that’s a hard one.
- I also want to know that camp staff will appreciate and encourage my child to be all that she can be BUT at the same time I want to know they will not be BULLDOZED by my child. She needs routines, limits and she needs to know expectations.
- I also want to know what is the plan if another camper is behavioural or a bully? (we had that issue one year at a different overnight camp.)
Our weekend at Ontario Pioneer Camp gave me insight into all of these important questions.
How staff interacts with kids is important to me as a parent booking camp for my kids. Being able to hear their philosophy of inclusion makes a big impact for me as a parent and a blogger. One on one is available if your camper needs it. BUT you have to identify your child’s needs so they receive the support that is available. Medical attention seems readily available and a hospital is not far away (Huntsville) should anyone ever have an emergency. The programs are fantastic and the location in Port Sydney is gorgeous.
I am thrilled to be able to offer readers $50 off their camp enrolment costs for the 2016 year. PLEASE USE this code: INKSCRBLR16 at checkout and save!
I was a guest of Ontario Pioneer Camp and enjoyed the activities and accommodations there for the weekend with my family. My opinion is all my own and it is 100 % truthful. Our daughter is going to Ontario Pioneer Camp this summer. I am ecstatic that she feels comfortable and supported enough to do this. We, and camp staff, have stacked the deck in favour of her having a successful camp experience. She is registered. Here’s hoping she has a fantastic week! I have a strong feeling she will.