Provincial funding cut for central Alberta camp for adults with developmental disabilities

Camp L.G. Barnes faces an uncertain future, but for decades has offered a summer camp and year-round activities for adults who are served by the provincial Persons with Developmental Disabilities program.

Camp L.G. Barnes had more than 4,000 visitors in 2019, its last full year open

Camp L.G. Barnes offers recreational opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities (Camp L.G. Barnes/Facebook)

A central Alberta camp for adults with developmental disabilities is trying to keep its doors open as it faces an uncertain future.

Camp L.G. Barnes in Gull Lake has been closed since last March because of COVID-19. It provides a summer camp for adults with developmental disabilities, along with other activities throughout the year. The camp is now seeking new sources of funding after provincial government cuts

The camp is for any adult served by the Persons With Developmental Disabilities (PDD) provincial agency, and it's operated by the Society of Parents and Friends of Michener Centre.

While the camp was originally established to provide recreation for Michener Centre residents in Red Deer, 70 per cent of the people who use it now are Alberta PDD clients from across the province. The camp was informed in October that the government will no longer provide staff or operating funds.

"There were always hints that they wanted to maybe not be as involved when we opened up to the community PDD clients about eight, 10 years ago," society president Deb Simmons said.

"Whether they come from Michener or they come from outside Michener, they're still community and social services PDD-funded campers, and the money should be coming from somewhere."

Funding from the province will end in March. Simmons said they thought the loss of government funding would be a slow transition, and said she was surprised by how abruptly the change was made.

Jerry Bellikka, a spokesperson for Alberta's Ministry of Community and Social Services, said the ministry is working to transition the camp's operations over to the society. 

The province had been providing roughly $628,000 in total funding through the provincially run Michener Centre, and will now use that same funding and staff in other roles to better support residents of that centre, Bellikka said. 

The camp is located 30 minutes northwest of Red Deer along Gull Lake. In 2019, its last full year open, it had more than 4,000 visits.

The Society of Parents and Friends of Michener Centre owns the land and buildings and pays for the upkeep. Community and social services, through the Michener Centre, has covered other costs like staffing.

Janice Graham, a former camp director at L.G. Barnes for 14 years, said she wasn't surprised to hear provincial funding was lost but that it's extremely important for the camp to remain open.

"I understand that there is a need for camps with children with disabilities, but there are some out there. There aren't very many for adults with disabilities," Graham said. "We have worked so hard to build this camp up to what it was."

Graham praised the camp for how it tries to accommodate everyone regardless of their ability. She said the camp uses adaptive equipment like a type of sleigh for people in wheelchairs to be pulled out onto the ice by a snowmobile, and a houseboat and ice-fishing shack that are also wheelchair accessible. 

One of the camp's visitors is Michael Wright, a 29-year-old with Down syndrome and autism. His parents, Lawrence and Shawna, said Michael had been visiting the camp for around five years before it closed last March.

"It has been hard. Even for him here, with still the freedom that he has, it has still been difficult to find things for him to do that's not the same scenery so to speak," Lawrence Wright said.

Michael Wright is one of the regular visitors to Camp L.G. Barnes near Gull Lake in central Alberta. (Supplied by Shawna Wright)

Lawrence added the camp has been valuable to them because of how affordable it is, and he said he was surprised by the funding cut. 

"It was a shock for everyone. A lot of sleepless nights trying to get stuff organized, trying to find money to find staff," Lawrence Wright said.

Looking ahead, Simmons said they hope to apply for other funding from the federal government to cover summer students working at the camp, and from Alberta's Civil Society Fund so they can hire people who will help them explore other financial models like private and corporate sponsors.

But despite the funding issues, Simmons said she can't imagine the camp closing.

"One way or another, we're going to make it work," Simmons said.

"To not have that takes a choice away from a population that doesn't really have a whole lot of people screaming bloody murder for them."