Like many other organizations, Hidden Acres Mennonite Camp and Retreat Centre was forced to rethink its programs and services when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down normal operations last year.
It “forced us into creatively brainstorming and dreaming about how we could use our facilities,” says program director Chris Pot.
In 2020, when no overnight camps could run, Hidden Acres staff offered a “camp-in-a-bag” program that was sent out to participants, and they made space for families to come and camp on the site near New Hamburg, Ont.
And they continued to ask, “If we can’t have this, what can we have?” That creative thinking led to what Pot is calling one of the “hidden blessings of COVID.” It’s a new program built on inclusion, which has long been part of the philosophy at Hidden Acres.
The Community Life and Skills Program (CLASP) for young adults with special needs, aged 18 to 35, ran last fall and this spring, with fairly tight health and safety regulations, and it is running again on Mondays through this fall with a few more freedoms. The acronym fits well, since a clasp is a device that holds things together and this program is described as “a connecting point for young adults with special needs” and a “safe community where friendships will flourish.” Campers need to be fully vaccinated and fairly independent, as the program operates with a 4-1 camper-to-staff ratio.
Pot is running the program this fall for five to six regulars, most of them in their early 20’s; three of them participated last year. They work together on developing life skills like meal planning, cooking and baking. They even tried knitting. They also do some service projects, like comforter knotting and kit packing for Mennonite Central Committee. They enjoy fun camp activities and getting outside regularly to hike or do a scavenger hunt. They also enjoy puzzles and games, the card game UNO having become a favourite.
CLASP started as a way to use the space at the camp and retreat centre when the facility was empty because of the pandemic. It also spoke to a need among families who were frustrated and concerned that there was nothing for their members with special needs, since all their programs shut down during the pandemic, and they were just “sitting at home . . . doing nothing.”
CLASP started with three participants last fall, when Cassie Zehr ran the program. Lydia Herrle, who had been a regular summer volunteer for a few years at Hidden Acres, volunteered to help, using it as a practical learning experience.
Hidden Acres has been offering inclusion programs for a long time. Summer camp, which ran as day programs this past summer, is designed to include campers with special needs, and children otherwise on the margins, who do not have equal opportunities and access to the resources that make attending summer camp possible. Some campers are referred to Hidden Acres from a community-support agency or from the House of Friendship in Kitchener.
“We have the infrastructure to provide the support and care that they need in order for them to successfully be a part of what is happening,” says Pot. They are “in a cabin, and in activities with a group of campers” with 1-on-1 support as they need it. The goal, Pot says, is always to “build relationships.”
Hidden Acres just celebrated 40 years of running a week-long single moms camp, for women living on a low income and their children.
And for at least a decade now, the camp has offered Supported Young Adult Camp (SYAC) for two weeks in the summer. This past summer SYAC ran as a day program with 15 to 20 participants each week, and a 2-1 camper-to-staff ratio. SYAC is a fully supported program for young adults with special needs.
Running the CLASP program has allowed Hidden Acres staff to maintain relationships with families throughout the year. Pot says he appreciates the weekly opportunity to get to know the young adults “on a deeper level,” and to “discover things they can do that I wouldn’t have known.” To provide a safe place for these young adults to be part of a community also means some respite time for their families.
“God has been faithful,” Pot says, as he reflects on the disruption of the pandemic, the resiliency of staff and the creative endeavour called CLASP.
Pot intends to offer the program again in the spring, hoping he can find someone else to run it, while he ramps up the planning for the summer camp season.
Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in Eastern Canada? Send it to Janet Bauman at firstname.lastname@example.org.