Many take their childhood summer camp experiences for granted, remembering fondly the times they jumped off a pier with friends or became close with a certain camp counselor. That developmental experience was a rite of passage, one that built confidence and self-esteem at a critical age. For others, camp was something they only heard of from friends or saw in movies. Financial struggles or family instability made attending summer camp essentially impossible. Many missed out on not only fun with friends, but pivotal opportunities for character growth and mentorship in an encouraging environment.
And, during the school year, these children often continue to miss out, lacking the support and resources that help a child thrive. Fortunately, there are outstanding organizations like Christie Lake Kids that help close this gap.
Christie Lake Kids
Christie Lake Kids founder, Judge John F. McKinley, believed that camping was an essential experience all children should have access to. He created a summer program in 1922 for the underserved boys he encountered in his practice in Ottawa. Through responsibility, exercise and fresh air, Judge McKinley saw the boys gain strength and confidence, as well as return home with a new respect for authority and drive to succeed in life.
Over the last century, the program evolved into a non-profit organization called Christie Lake Kids. Today, the organization welcomes both boys and girls – specifically from economically disadvantaged communities – and even extends into the school year with an array of afterschool programs.
It has retained its original intention to support those who wouldn’t otherwise attend camp, and it’s free to low-income Ottawa families. Not only are activities like rock climbing and canoeing included in the two-week experience, but kids are given the opportunity to develop confidence and social skills in a supportive and safe setting.
"We believe the experience of growing up in poverty should not define a person or limit their potential," says Natalie Benson, the organization's Director of Fundraising and Communications. "We offer year-round programs to Ottawa’s most vulnerable children, giving them the chance to learn physical, character and social skills in a safe, encouraging, inclusive environment."
Christie Lake Kids Camp also removes any possible financial stress from the camp experience. Swimsuits, pillows, shoes and more are all given to campers their first day, so every attendee leaves with more than when they arrived.
With almost 400 campers arriving each summer, Christie Lake Kids depends on both donations and volunteer efforts to stay running. Employees at Mitel’s Kanata office outside Ottawa saw this need and decided to volunteer there during the first global Mitel Serves Day in June 2018. Among those heading the volunteer effort was Lillian Neitzel, Senior Product Portfolio Manager at Mitel.
Taking part in summer camp can seem like a small thing on the surface, but Lillian quickly realized the scope of Christie Lake’s impact. Taking young children and pre-teens out of potentially stressful home lives in the city and giving them a couple weeks to try new sports, develop bonds with peers and counselors, create art or just enjoy the fresh air has transformative effects.
“Many have seen struggles or are dealing with authority issues,” explains Lillian. “But at camp, no one is rich and no one is poor. No one is from that neighborhood or that one. Everyone is just a camper.”
She was especially impacted by the community she witnessed in the camp’s cafeteria, saying, “Breaking bread together is such a simple thing and yet, when you get inside a dining hall with hundreds of children and everyone has stories to tell, you find out we’re all the same. Everyone has fears, joys and hope. Hope is a hard thing to teach, but when you can give that to a child, you can truly change the world.”
After volunteering just once, Lillian knew she and her fellow Kanata colleagues had to stay involved. Their day at Christie Lake not only helped the camp, but also brought them together as coworkers and friends.
“It is overwhelming to think what 100+ volunteers can do to a camp in just eight hours,” Lillian reflects. “Totaled together, that is 800 man hours in just one day. The bonus that comes out of this is a new connection with people you have worked with for years, but you never really knew.”
Inspired by the powerful change she witnessed and wanting to do more for Christie Lake Kids, Lillian decided to have the Kanata office return to the camp for Mitel Serves in 2019, much like the kids do each summer. This time, they had a horde of donations in hand.
For weeks, Kanata employees donated items for Christie Lake Kids and various other charities in Ottawa, ranging from non-perishable food items to blankets and pillows. By the end, over 75 boxes and bags of donations were collected. The office also held raffles to raise funds for these charities, accruing over $1,000.
"Groups like Mitel are instrumental in providing hundreds of man hours of maintenance, cleaning and more," says Natalie Benson, Director of Fundraising and Communications for Christie Lake Kids. "This year, they also provided amazing materials to ensure each child will be happy and successful in our programs."
Thanks to the work of many dedicated volunteers from all over the area, Christie Lake Kids continues to grow each year and provide better programs for disadvantaged families in Ottawa, including a summer camp experience hundreds of kids will never forget.