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Jude Johnson on breaking down barriers at camp 0:35

After 28 years and more than 8,000 kids, Jude Johnson is no longer mad.

That's M.A.D., as in the Music, Arts and Drama camp Johnson founded 28 years ago, which has been run out of the First Unitarian Church of Hamilton for the last 13 years. 

'I've loved doing what I do but it's time to follow my other dreams.'—Jude Johnson

After nurturing the musical and artistic spirits of thousands of kids, Johnson is stepping down, although she'll stay on part-time as her daughter Jo, transitions into the role of director.

"I've loved doing what I do but it's time to follow my other dreams," said Johnson, 59, who plans to travel and devote more time to writing and performing music.

She recently recorded her ninth CD, a collection of jazz favourites and would like to do another CD of kids' music. In October, she plans to travel to India to see the area where her father was born.

Johnson said her idea when she started MAD camp was to give kids the opportunity to experience the arts in an unstructured environment.

One of the trademarks of the camp, which is the highlight for many kids, is the opportunity to write and perform their own song. On the final day of each two-week camp segment, each child comes to the stage — some do duets — and perform their songs. Johnson holds the microphone and guides them through it.

Art as therapy

She feels a sense of pride that several "graduates" have gone on to become professional singers. For others, the experience has been very personal.

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Jude Johnson, centre, says she'll still be involved in the M.A.D. on a part-time basis, while her daughter Jo, left, will take over the camp. (Also pictured is drama teacher Matt Szpirglas.) (Denise Davy/CBC)

"One of the children who wrote a song today suffers from anxiety and she wrote this great song all about her feelings," said Johnson. "I said to her as she wrote, 'Just get it out.' And she said, 'Thank you so much.' "

Johnson believes in the therapeutic element of the arts and said, "When it stays inside, kids and adults can get depressed. We all need to find ways to express our feelings, whether it's through painting or acting or drama. I think it's so important for human beings."

Johnson said future MAD campers will be in good hands with Jo, 24, who has been going to MAD camp since she was five, volunteered there through high school and has been art director for the last six years.

"She's a gifted teacher," said Johnson.

Johnson laughs when she thinks back to how long she has been running the camp.

"I have MAD camp kids who are now sending their kids to the camp," said Johnson.

"That's how long I've been at it."