By Cathy Jenkins, for Camp Business magazine
Photos courtesy 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
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
“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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.