North Vancouver School District
the natural place to learn©
Nov 06
The Magic Of A Memory: 50 years of life-changing experiences at Cheakamus Centre


By Cathy Jenkins, for Camp Business magazine
Photos c
ourtesy of Cheakamus Centre

“Cheakamus Centre has been such a big part of my life for the last decade or more. It was where I found a lot of my friends in the earlier years, but ultimately where I found out who I was in the end.”

~ Genevieve Bailey, teacher, former student, and counselor

A sense of belonging makes Cheakamus Centre a magical place of lasting memories. Tucked away on the banks of the Ch'iyákmesh River, near Squamish, British Columbia, the Centre is an overnight, outdoor-education facility that has enriched the lives of children and youth.

Cheakamus Centre resides on the unceded traditional territory of the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) Nation, and offers a range of place-based environmental and indigenous cultural-education programs, rooted in Skwxwú7mesh practices.

The Centre serves more than 15,000 children, youth, and adults annually from the Lower Mainland and beyond. It is also the long-time base camp for Young Burn Survivors Camp and the Paradise Valley Summer School of Visual Arts.

With 170 hectares of protected coastal rainforest, spawning habitat for thousands of Pacific salmon and home to large congregations of wintering bald eagles, Cheakamus Centre is a hidden gem of authentic outdoor and nature-based learning experiences.


A Sense Of Community

Cheakamus Centre is proudly celebrating its 50th anniversary. The archives have been cracked open, and stories, memories, and photographs are coming in fast and furious from individuals who have been part of an extraordinary journey.

While much has changed since that first class of excited 6th graders jostled their way off a bus in 1970, what has endured is the desire to offer young learners life-changing experiences in nature that inspire new ways of thinking about themselves, others, and the world around them.

The lasting power of places like Cheakamus is evident in former student Sepideh Tazzman, who also happens to be the Centre’s communications manager spearheading the 50th celebrations.

“As an immigrant, it was challenging to adjust to Canadian culture. We often had to adapt quickly, and sometimes concealed our own culture in an attempt to ‘fit in.’ What the longhouse experience did for me was show me that there are different cultures in this world, and it is important to embrace the uniqueness of them all. In that simple experience, I realized I wasn’t the only one with different traditions, food, and behavior—there were so many others that were different as well,” she remembers.

Tazzman’s story is not unlike those of others who have found a sense of community through cabin living, shared meals, and outdoor experiences. Anne Watson, an education aide at Lynn Valley Elementary, appreciated the positive overnight experience for the autistic student in her care.

“I personally believe that all of our students should have the opportunity to experience [the Outdoor School Program] at whatever level they function,” she says. “Both the student and her mom were very anxious about this experience. Working with staff and two amazing high-school counselors, she was able to be in the cabin for three nights with her own peers. Not only did she stay in the cabin alone, she even tried sleeping on the top bunk! Not bad for a kid who had never been away from mom.”

Providing Diverse Opportunities

Working closely with the North Vancouver School District’s Learning Services Department, school staff members, parents, and community partners, Cheakamus Centre has been able to provide a wide range of adaptations to support the diverse populations served.

These adaptations and support for those with diverse needs include shortened stays, overnight support for caregivers, pre-site visits, coordination with partner groups such as Vancouver Coastal Health, and effective pre-trip planning and communication procedures. The Centre’s meal service is nutritional and student-centred, with a comprehensive food restriction and allergy response plan in place. And kids and adults love the food!

The site and facilities are built and maintained with openness in mind, allowing for excellent access to buildings and outdoor learning spaces. Program activities and adaptations are designed to allow participants to engage to the best of their ability in a wide range of outdoor experiences.

And it doesn’t stop there. Cheakamus Centre continues to invest in ongoing staff training in social-emotional supports, student transitions and diversity, and an awareness of complex learning needs.

These measures have enabled the Centre to support and accommodate a wide range of participants with many diverse abilities and provide them the greatest opportunities for success.


Memories—New And Old

One such camper is Thomas Zarelli, who has been attending the Young Burn Survivors Camp for 14 years; he also was one of this year’s junior counselors. When asked what he loved best about the camp, he was quick to reply.

“My favorite part of Burn Camp is just being here,” he says. “We are all here for the kids because of the support. Survivors often go through depression or have anxiety. It’s nice to have a week to be away from all that and be around people who are just like you.”

Throughout this milestone year, Cheakamus Centre is sharing the stories, history, and diversity of the many people who have contributed to five decades of outdoor learning. One theme emerges consistently: a lifelong love and appreciation of nature and the outdoors that was sparked at Cheakamus Centre.

Diana Izdebski credits her love for nature to the 10+ years she was involved as a student and counselor. She is a contemporary landscape and wildlife artist who now brings that love to life through her colorful acrylic paintings. She writes that, beyond being immersed in nature, Cheakamus was an opportunity for a shy young girl to find comfort and companionship with like-minded individuals.


Izdebski continues to honor her days at Cheakamus by using her artwork to raise support and awareness for nature conservation.

Decades later, Don Robertson can still remember the enthusiastic grade 6 and 7 teachers clamoring to have their classes involved in a week-long foray in the outdoors.

“It soon became necessary for me to expand the program to the full school year,” he recalls.

As one of the Centre’s early founders, Robertson sees what started as a desire for teachers to use the out-of-doors as a learning tool has become a critical experience for the youth of today in the quest for knowledge about, and care for, the environment.

While the Centre celebrates the past and the legacy of those who came before, it looks to the future with focussed purpose. Now, more than ever, young people need to connect with nature to succeed as global citizens and future stewards of the planet.

At the ripe age of 50, Cheakamus Centre has grown up without growing old, and the future is bright with opportunities to inspire and grow the next generation of nature-conscious leaders. Check out Cheakamus Centre’s 90-second inspirational video!

Cathy Jenkins is the Camp Revitalization Project Manager for the Cheakamus Centre. Reach her at



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