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Camp fYrefly creates new wave of leaders

August 26, 2014 Jennifer Dodsworth


Sexual and gender minority youth seek to be visible

The energy in the cafeteria is palpable on the sunny July morning when the campers arrive. They stand nervously in line, waiting to be signed in and shown to their rooms. Their shoulders are bowed under the weight of backpacks and duffel bags, but when they return to the cafeteria, welcomed by broad smiles and cheers of greeting, they seem to stand taller, as if they’ve shed more than one burden.

Campers take part in movement workshops with artist-in-residence Ainsley Hillyard

Welcome to Camp fYrefly.

Over the next four days, my fellow volunteers and I have the honour of mentoring these young people and watching them become resilient as they grow in strength and confidence. The shared experience of camp becomes a sacred space where everyone is safe, accepted and respected and where everyone has a voice.

Camp fYrefly, held at the Bennett Centre, in Edmonton, is Canada’s only national leadership retreat for sexual and gender minority youth. It was founded in 2004 by Dr. André Grace and Dr. Kristopher Wells, directors of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta. The camp is structured to ensure each participant is comfortable and connected. Program coordinator Alison Brooks-Starks and her assistant, Brent Saccucci, are organized and energized and the heart and soul of the camp.

Over the years, Camp fYrefly has grown into an award-winning, volunteer-based program with annual sister camps in Calgary and Saskatchewan. The camp helps LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirited and queer) adolescents and young adults to become empowered to pursue personal and social development through art, dance and music, and to network with peers and mentors. And we have a blast while we’re at it!

Participants are divided into pods—each pod consisting of five campers, two youth leaders and two adult volunteers. Professional counsellors are on site, as many of the youth experience anxieties triggered by the discrimination and bullying they’ve encountered in their schools.

Camp fYrefly offers participants safety. As one camper tells me, trying to hold back tears: “People tell me I inspire them. How? By being brave? For just getting through the day? I shouldn’t have to be brave just to survive. I don’t want to be an inspiration. I just want to be me.” At Camp fYrefly, he can be himself.

I feel honoured to interact with these young people and to watch them emerge from their shells. Walking down the halls of the Bennett Centre, I pass a trio of campers singing in the stairwell—their harmonies blending and echoing, their voices matching perfectly. Another group reads poetry written by participants—poems filled with despair, loneliness and hope. They snap their fingers for each other and share hugs and tears. During dance night, the camper who swears he’s never sung or danced in his life jumps up and down while belting out: “I’m beautiful in my way, cuz God makes no mistakes; I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way!” Another emerges from a gender-neutral bathroom, wearing a long dress and lace-up high heels, a flush of joy on their face. Or his face. Or her face. We choose our preferred pronouns at Camp fYrefly because that is part of what makes us free to be who we are.

Camp fYrefly forges intense friendships and connections between participants because they have discovered that they are kindred spirits who aren’t alone in this world. They are brought together by their shared experiences of exclusion, by their questions of gender and identity and through their stories of survival in a world that doesn’t always understand them. I’m amazed to hear 14- and 15-year-olds using terms like non-binary, gender dysphoria and transmasculinity over a plate of chili at lunchtime. These are smart, unique, soulful human beings who have much to teach us about acceptance. Camp fYrefly is creating a new wave of leaders equipped with the skills and resources needed to challenge prejudice and promote diversity, equity and human rights in society. They will show us just how visible the invisible minority can be.

Teachers, principals and community mentors are in a perfect position to support and encourage these students. This could mean getting involved in schools’ GSA (gaystraight alliance), reading LGBTQ-friendly children’s books to young students, inviting fYrefly to speak to middle school students or putting up ATA “Safe Space” stickers or posters on classroom bulletin boards. Our LGBTQ students need us to reach out to them and to speak up for them. We must break the silence that renders them invisible in our schools.

Camp fYrefly gives young LGBTQ people a taste of a better world that is possible. These four days of camp provide the strength and resources on which they can rely to keep going through the next year. An alumnus of Camp fYrefly observed: “Camp doesn’t just change lives, it saves them.” These young people shouldn’t have to wait another 361 days to be seen, heard and supported. As teachers, we can do that every day in our classrooms. We must. Too many lives are still at stake.

Jennifer Dodsworth teaches at École Mountain View School, in Hinton.

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