July 25, 2013 8:46 pm
Updated: July 25, 2013 11:09 pm

Camp for LGBTQ youth celebrates 10 years

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A groundbreaking summer camp designed to support LGBTQ youth is celebrating its 10th birthday this year.

Since 2004, the weekend retreat called Camp FYrefly (Firefly) has provided what organizers say is Canada’s only national leadership camp for LGBTQ youth.  The goal of the retreat is to provide the youth with an environment free of discrimination, and teaches them about leadership, human rights, emotional fitness, and self-defence among other issues.

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“The idea for the camp came from youth in the community that said they wanted more than two hours each week where they could be safe,” said Kris Wells, Camp FYrefly co-founder.

Ten years ago, before the camp existed, Wells was a teacher and an undergraduate student at the University of Alberta. The youth first approached him because of his position as an educator.

“They said: ‘you’re a teacher, do something,’” he remembered.

Wells took the request to heart, and approached his undergraduate supervisor, André P. Grace, for help.

“We said ‘every kid deserves a summer camp. Let’s create a camp,’” Wells said.

The camp started out modestly – 30 youth, and lasted 2 ½ days. It didn’t take long for Wells and Grace to realize that they were on to something.

“We knew we had magic,” said Wells. “We knew the power of these young people, when they felt safe, when they felt that they were no longer alone.”

One of those youth was Evan Westfal, who started out as a camper nine years ago and is now a volunteer. Westfal first attend the camp when he was 16. At the time, he was the only openly gay youth at his high school in Spruce Grove.

“I didn’t have a sense of community,” he said. “I felt very much alone a lot of the time. I heard about the camp and I was thrilled about the opportunity to meet and speak with people who had similar life experiences as myself.”

Westfal said it was one of the best decisions he could have made at that age.

“It gave me a lot of hope.” He said. “It was really exciting for me to see role models, to see people who had exciting careers, not only in spite of the fact they were gay, but because they were queer.”

“That gave me a lot of hope.”

Nine years have gone by since Westfal first went to camp Fyrefly, and since that time over 1,000 youth in similar situation have had the chance to experience the retreat for themselves.

“That is a thousand youth whose lives have been changed,” said Wells. “They are learning new leadership skills; first to be a leader to themselves, and then to go out and be leaders in their communities.”

“[They learn] to be that positive agent for change, knowing that your voice can make a difference, and that when you feel safe and supported there are no barriers.”

The idea has spread across Alberta and into Saskatchewan as well. This is the first year a Fyrefly camp will take place in Calgary, and the fifth year Saskatoon will host a similar retreat.

Wells hopes the idea catches one nationwide. However, he said that the camp is just one small step in a much larger movement towards a more inclusive society.

“We create a world free from fear,” said Wells. “It is an oasis away from homophobia and transphobia. Camp Fyrefly is a world that does not yet exist out there. So we bring them together for these four days, and it is the other 361 days that the community needs to step up.”

“We have a long way to go. Social change doesn’t happen with one individual, it happens with a group of individuals who come together and share knowledge, share their stories and experiences, and take that out into the world to build a better, more inclusive and just society.”

With files from Laurel Clark, Global News. 

© 2013 Shaw Media

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