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Summer traditions back at Camp Bowen

Summer Camps and Skills Program returned to the island this year

As summer camp season approaches, one organization on Bowen is working hard to continue its annual offerings which have benefitted people of all ages for decades.

Camp Bowen, situated within the Bowen Island Lodge in a quiet part of Snug Cove overlooking Mannion Bay, has been a safe haven for the DeafBlind community for many years. Its origins trace back to the 1960s, and continue a tradition of blind groups on Bowen that stretches back over a century. Today it’s a member of the Canadian Organization of the Blind and DeafBlind – headquartered here on the island – and offers a combination of year-long and summer sessions designed to both teach skills and provide a place of relaxation and entertainment for its visitors.

The organization is currently winding down its Skills Immersion Training Program, which involves a 10-month stay at the lodge from September to June. Participants learn a variety of life skills, ranging from cooking, to using adaptive technology such as computers or phones, or how to travel with canes both on Bowen and in the city. Students come from all over Canada to take part, and become an involved part of the community during their time on Bowen.

“Everybody comes to us with different things they’ve managed to piece together through their lifetime, and we really help them put that all together and make sure they have a solid foundation of independent living skills before they head home,” says Alex Jurgensen, Camp Bowen’s director of operations and community engagement. He began participating in the group’s programming in 1999, and later began working with them in 2010.

“What we’ve seen over time is that Bowen Island has overall a more accepting nature than most communities… Bowen Islanders treat blind people like human beings… There’s that dignity that exists,” he says. Jurgensen adds that two of the many interactions experienced in other places – either being treated like an oddity, or someone who cannot take care of themselves – are not situations encountered on the island.

In addition to the people of the island, there are many geographical advantages which make Camp Bowen successful. “Bowen is very quiet compared to most other places – especially when it’s not tourist season – but it’s right next door to the big city. So that provides a couple of unique things… you have the ability to work in a quiet environment. Especially for somebody who has recently lost vision and is just heading out travelling for the first time using their cane, that’s not something that lends itself well to big cities with cars zooming around and things,” says Jurgensen.

“Here a lot of people are aware of it because it’s a small community so people tend to know more that it’s here, and people are just slower drivers in general here, with a lot of quiet roads. So we take good advantage of that,” he adds. Jurgensen also explains that even geographically within Bowen, being in the Cove allows invaluable walking access to the majority of the island’s amenities.

This year marked not only the return of the training program to the island following the pandemic, but coming up in August the organization’s traditional summer camps too. This year there’s three camps spanning all age groups – the Braille Literacy Camp (ages 8-12), Linda Evans Memorial Music Camp (ages 8-18), and the Adult Retreat, which has run since 1962. Together they’re expected to bring more than 250 campers to Bowen during their various sessions.

The Braille camp has been around since the turn of the millennium, focusing on connecting kids with the world around them, and literacy. “A lot of them are not necessarily receiving Braille instruction in their home communities, so we’re trying to get them really excited about it,” says Jurgensen.

“Because if you can’t be literate it’s going to be really hard, and Braille does equal literacy for a blind person,” he adds. Jurgensen says the course has undergone many adaptions over the years as technology advances, especially in the world of electronic Braille. Themes change over the years too, this year for instance the choice is community exploration. This means students will be going to various locations around Bowen and exploring how people spend their day-to-day lives.

End-of-Summer concert planned

The music is returning to Camp Bowen this summer too, via the Linda Evans Memorial Camp. Students choose either new instruments, or ones they have experience with, and spend the week honing their skills before capping camp off with a community concert.

“You get kids who never played an instrument before, and at the end of the week they’re in the concert,” says Jurgensen. This year’s show will be extra special as it’s the 60th of the camp’s existence.

In addition to the kids camps, there’s also the long-standing Adult Retreat. Many of the participants in this excursion have been coming for decades, and have built many friendships over the years.

“Some people literally just socialize the entire time because that’s the one time they get to see their friends every year,” says Jurgensen, adding that while there’s many activities scheduled during the retreat, they’re all optional. “Rural areas are pretty isolating, and even downtown Vancouver can be pretty isolating too. So it’s that opportunity for everybody to reconnect,” he says.

Camp Bowen offers another advantage in that it is one of the few, if not the only, organization of its kind in Canada where participants come live and learn for so long. While many cities have local programs, it can be difficult finding a learning environment free of distractions, or with the time necessary to build skills quickly. Jurgensen says it would take years through day programs in a city to master the same skillsets.

And in more rural areas where that time and setting may be possible, spaces such as Camp Bowen are basically non-existent, even ones which did exist dying off over the years. Even though rent has risen over the years, a special zoning protection on the Bowen Lodge – a Section 219 Covenant (BC Land Title Act) classifies the land as Recreation Training and Meeting Centre for the Care and Rehabilitation of Persons with Disabilities – allows their unique service to continue to operate in such a prime space.

All these factors combine to attract students from far and wide to the lodge, which at its full capacity could hold dozens of people. There’s currently eight students, with a staff of nine on-site. While not a massive group, it’s up markedly from the days of the pandemic when in-person programming had to be suspended, and only around five staff members remained at the lodge. The easing of Covid restrictions will hopefully create a resurgence among the skills program and summer camps, says Jurgensen.

“By last summer we were getting the message loud and clear: we need to go back in-person… It feels fantastic to be doing that, and we want to keep doing that for years to come,” he says.