If you pivot enough times, it becomes dancing. And over this past year, Willowgrove found that, despite its Mennonite roots, it has taken to dancing quite naturally.
Johnny Wideman, Willowgrove’s executive director, only took the helm this past February, having just three weeks in the office before the COVID-19 lockdown.
“I was amazed by the tenacity of Willowgrove’s staff,” he says. “Many of our team members have been with the organization for over a decade, yet everyone seemed to acknowledge that this year was going to be different and committed wholeheartedly to a marathon of uncertainty.”
Willowgrove’s Outdoor Education Centre typically hosts around 17,000 students every year. However, with field trips halted during the pandemic, Willowgrove pivoted its day programming into a full-time Nature School, designed to supplement the Ontario curriculum and provide hands-on, inquiry-based learning through an outdoor classroom. Offering five- and three-day programs for students aged 6 to12, Willow grove’s low student-to-teacher ratios of two teachers for every 15 students meant the organization was able to safely meet the educational needs of its community, while also nurturing children’s emotional and social well-being during an otherwise scary time.
“It’s so refreshing to see smiling faces at drop off and pick up,” says Corrin, a Nature School parent. “[Our son] runs to the car in the morning. Such a difference from school last year. What a great thing you’ve all done.”
Willowgrove’s Day Camp was one of the many camps that was unable to offer its typical summer programming this past summer; the first time since 1968. However, the energy and creativity of Willowgrove’s camp minds came together in partnership with Autism Ontario, to provide drive-through scavenger hunts, and DJ sets and Halloween parties on site for families with children with special needs.
Willowgrove also hosted a drive-through fundraiser, providing farm-fresh meals alongside a local chef, as well as a drive-through Christmas “eye spy” event.
The Day Camp also provided "bubble programs" for families to explore the creek, hike trails and rent the pool. We also created a bubble-focused Harvest Festival for groups of 25 to come apple picking, buy produce and go on wagon rides.
“There was a lot of excitement around these events,” says Maeyken Jones, director of the Day Camp. “We had to think of unique ways for our community to safely experience camp. This meant bubbles and cars, but so many families thanked us profusely for simply providing something during COVID.”
Willowgrove Day Camp is already deep into its summer planning and has fully modified the camp program, placing campers in unique cohorts with revised daily schedules that ensure these groups never mix.
“We have such a talented, passionate group of people at Willowgrove,” says Wideman. “Our community of local churches pours so much into this place as well. I have every reason to believe we will ride out this season of strange uncertainty and will be all the stronger for it.”