Camp Eclipse celebrates 10 years of safety and support for LGBT youth

The camp's slogan is "Out in the Woods."

4-day camp equips youth with leadership skills

Camp Eclipse campers work on their happy books, in which friends write positive messages. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Rudy Bartlett says Camp Eclipse saved his life.

"Camp is the first place where I really was able to be around people like me for the first time and to be able to feel loved and accepted and like my voice really mattered," he said. "It's been very formative for me."

This year is Bartlett's fourth year at Camp Eclipse, a summer retreat for LGBT youth and their friends. He now returns to help ensure that the camp continues to provide that safe, welcoming space for others — and for himself.

Everyone's here and everyone loves you, and everyone is going to accept you no matter what.- El Patey

"Coming back is like taking a big breath of fresh air for the rest of the year," said Bartlett, who is from Marysvale.

Camp is "addictive," said camper Devin Lowe, attending for his third year.

Rudy Bartlett says Camp Eclipse helped him overcome anxiety and depression. (Katie Breen/CBC)

"The community that you build here, and all of the friends that you make, you just can't come one year. You come back almost every year," he said.

Camp Eclipse is short — just four days and three nights at the Brother Brennan Centre about an hour outside of St. John's — but constant movement, constant activity, said Lowe.

Happy books

One of th the activities for campers is creating "happy books" that they take home with them, in which they collect messages of love and support from their fellow campers and counsellors.

"You write your name and decorate them however you choose, and throughout camp you write down things that you notice about people, things that you like, bonds that you've shared with people, and then you read them throughout the year if you want," he said.

"They help you because you notice how much people care and how much people notice about you, stuff like that. They're really good … I struggle a lot with validation. A lot of times people write validating quotes and validating sentences in my happy book, and whenever I need that validation I remember how much people care about me and how much people support whatever I choose to do."

Camper El Patey said the safety and support makes the camp a welcoming environment.

"You know that everyone is part of the community and there's no fear of, 'Oh, there's someone homophobic around the corner who's going to hear.' Everyone's here and everyone loves you, and everyone is going to accept you no matter what."

Campers decorate their happy books, and others write supportive messages in them. (Katie Breen/CBC)

That safety is not guaranteed anywhere else, said Patey.

"I'm lucky because I live in a metropolitan area, I live in St. John's, but there's still a lot of fear that if I was totally out to everyone, I would get hurt or insulted or discriminated against because of the way that I am. Here there's no fear, and it really shows the difference between the safety here and the, not dangers of the outside world, but the hazards of it."

The camp, started by Planned Parenthood, is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and as the camp has grown it has built relationships and partnerships with other groups and organizations; this year, Camp Eclipse partnered with YWCA St. John's to offer the retreat.

Out in the Woods

The camp was originally called "Camp ?" said Nikki Baldwin, Planned Parenthood's executive director, and then they let campers choose the name. They opted for two: Camp Eclipse, and Out in the Woods, which was adopted as the camp's slogan.

"We are about 45 minutes from civilization, and we were very out here in the woods, and they are very out," said Baldwin, laughing.

The amount they grow each year is astounding, but then you watch them grow a year's worth of growth in four days and it's amazing.- Nikki Baldwin

Baldwin has worked with the camp for the past five years, and loves to see the transformation it works on campers.

"The amount they grow each year is astounding, but then you watch them grow a year's worth of growth in four days and it's amazing," she said.

"And then you see brand-new campers come in and they find the same growth and it's like watching children graduate high school and you're a teacher."

Wendolyn Schlamp, executive director of the YWCA St. John's, said her organization was honoured to be asked to help with Camp Eclipse.

Devin Lowe says he loves the lift he receives throughout the year from reading the messages written in his happy book. (Katie Breen/CBC)

"We were very eager to participate in camp this year, as we've been working on gender issues and on gender inclusion, gender diversity, and it felt like a very good fit for us," said Sclamp, this year's camp director.

At its core, said Schlamp, Eclipse is a leadership camp, where campers who have participated are encouraged, like Bartlett, to return as mentors for other youth. Passing on what they've learned to others is a crucial aspect of the leadership skills the camp imparts.

Developing leaders

"Sometimes marginalized groups can find it hard to find a voice or find a space to express activism, to express social justice, to make change," said Schlamp.

"It's really important to the groups that are organizing this camp and the individuals who get involved to provide a space where leadership can be developed, and where being a member of the LGBTQ+ community is celebrated and honoured and respected and really given a space to grow."

El Patey says Camp Eclipse provides a safe space for people to be themselves without fear of being judged, insulted, harassed or hurt. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Schlamp said that even though this is her first year at the camp, she's seen a change in everyone who participates, from the campers to the leaders and mentors.

"I think what surprised me is that I expected to see those changes, and I didn't sort of stop and think about the change that would happen in me as a result of that," she said.

"People have shared a lot and have thought about ways that they want to grow and take on new challenges and use the new skills that they've learned and go out and create new things, new initiatives and make change in their communities. I feel like it's a ripple effect at this camp. We're all affected by the change that happens in campers and in one another."

Finding his voice

For Bartlett, Camp Eclipse helped him find his voice — literally.

"I was extremely anxious and depressed when I first came here. I could barely speak to people, and now it's very difficult to get me to shut up," he said.

"I just feel that now I'm able to give back more and I'm able to help other people. I'm not in survival mode anymore, having to go through high school, go through these difficult times. I'm able to take a step back and see what I can do for other people as well."

With files from Katie Breen.

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