How throwing rocks can change lives

Camp Outlook takes at-risk Kingston youths on canoe trips that benefit the student counsellors as much as the kids

Winter Outlook counsellors Sarah Cart, Katie Quinn, Farron Blanc and Joe Oliver (L to R) set up camp.
Winter Outlook counsellors Sarah Cart, Katie Quinn, Farron Blanc and Joe Oliver (L to R) set up camp.
Photo courtesy of Sophie Barbier

Mike Karkheck is living proof of the impact that Camp Outlook can have on impressionable young minds.

A school guidance counsellor recommended the now 22-year-old to Camp Outlook when he was 14. After spending four summers as a Camp Outlook camper, he started working for the camp when he was 18, first in the camp’s office and then as a counsellor.

He said this is the first summer in almost nine years that he won’t be involved with the camp.

“I think I’ve had a pretty good run,” Karkheck said, smiling.

For at-risk youths, involvement in Camp Outlook is a life-changing experience that helps keep them out of what Karkheck calls “small-town trouble.” He said he dallied in petty pranks growing up in Frankford—a town north of Trenton—and when he was 16, he dropped out of school.

“As soon as I quit, I realized what I’d done,” said Karkheck, who now works for a contracting company in the auto-manufacturing industry. He said he’s also working toward his grade 12 diploma.

“Some of the campers wanted to quit school, and I told them every bad thing that’s happened to me [since I’ve dropped out],” Karkheck said.

“They’re not bad kids,” he said earnestly. “And they’re so smart.”

Outlook is a not-for-profit camp that takes at-risk and underprivileged Kingston youths on wilderness trips free of charge, in order to help them by exposing them to the great outdoors.

Founded in 1970 by Ron Kimberly, a Queen’s medical student, the camp is comprised of volunteer counsellors and directors who are mostly Queen’s students and alumni, and who lead campers between the ages of 13 and 17 on trips that allow them to canoe, hike and portage to their hearts’ content—or to the upper limit of their endurance.

In Ryan Newman’s experience, kids on canoe trips love nothing more than throwing rocks and breaking branches.

“[The campers] don’t really like to paddle—they can be in a canoe paddling for seven hours,” said Newman, ArtSci ’05 and one of Outlook’s directors this summer and was also a counsellor last year. “So ‘paddle’ is a word staff use a lot over the summer—‘paddle’ as a command! ...

“The most fun things for campers are throwing rocks, breaking branches and damaging wood. They’re also happy going on hikes to lookouts ... and they love the wildlife.” Newman said past and present Outlook staff members agree that the campers, who have generally had difficult childhoods and are referred to Camp Outlook by the Children’s Aid Society and other Kingston youth diversion agencies, benefit greatly from these wilderness experiences.

“It definitely builds their confidence,” Newman said. “Sometimes, depending on the camper, we’ll let them take on more responsibility, like building the fire or steering the canoe. There’s lots of room to grow, and lots of leadership roles to take on if they want.”

Rob Patterson, ArtSci ’06 and a former Outlook staffer, said he thinks the young charges need the chance to be respected, something the trips provide in abundance.

“The kids are really different, and they’re also human beings,” he said. “And if you give them respect and treat them like decent human beings, it’s really rewarding to see them grow, and maybe they’ll stop hitting that other camper every five minutes.

“Maybe it’ll be every 10 minutes,” he added with a smile.

But Camp Outlook isn’t all throwing rocks and changing lives. Behind the joy of the trips lies a great deal of volunteer work, coupled with a not-for-profit organization’s typical—and constant—fear of running out of money.

In the summer seasons, Outlook usually takes anywhere from 90 to 130 campers—some of whom go on more than one excursion—up to Algonquin Park for trips ranging from eight to 15 days in length.

According to the camp’s summer referral forms, Outlook pays approximately $300 per camper, per trip, and while parents or guardians are encouraged to donate anything they can, there are no mandatory fees. Newman said the summer camp usually operates on a budget of about $40,000 or $45,000, while the winter camp’s budgets range between $3,000 and $7,000.

The summer and winter budgets differ so greatly because there are fewer expenses and shorter trips in the winter, said Tom Macmillan, ArtSci ’06 and one of Outlook’s winter directors for the most recent term.

Financial concerns dominate the directors’ summer preparations, Newman said. He estimated that one-third of Outlook’s funding comes from the camp’s alumni, another third is raised by an annual appeal from Queen’s Chaplain Brian Yealland, and the remaining third comes from Queen’s-related efforts as well as grants and corporate sponsorships.

Yealland said the involvement of the Chaplain’s office with fundraising for Camp Outlook began with his predecessor, Padre Laverty, who provided assistance in mentorship and fundraising to Kimberly and others when they started the camp.

Yealland said he now sends out more than 400 letters per year to interested parties, and collects around $15,000.

“I think what they do is quite exceptional ... a tremendous gift on the part of the students themselves,” he said. “And the campers themselves are quite affected and changed, [as they are shown] in quite dramatic terms that there are other options for their lives.”

Newman said Outlook applies for grants all over Canada, and since some companies in Kingston are aware of the camp’s work, they have benefited in the past from random calls from groups looking to donate to the cause.

“But we have a lot of trouble finding money—we’re usually worried at the beginning of the summer,” Newman said.

Further difficulties arise from the hiring of volunteer staff members. While winter counsellors only need to lead weekend-long trips to a plot of land 45 minutes north of Kingston, the summer staff must commit to a month of training in June, as well as planning and leading trips throughout July and August.

The training month includes hard camping skills like pitching tents and starting fires, soft skills like dealing with camper issues, and a strenuous seven-day trip “where we try to push them to their physical and emotional breaking points,” Newman said, so the counsellors will know what the city-based campers feel like on their first trips.

“[The summer camp] is such a large commitment—we’re asking people to commit to three months of volunteering—but the people who apply to work at summer Outlook are a very special group,” Newman said.

“They’re very devoted to Outlook and the ideas Outlook promotes, and they’re happy to be there. Some years we have a surplus of applicants, but not this year—we’re still hiring.”

Newman said the Outlook staff members also play valuable roles as mentors and examples for their campers.

“We try to demonstrate positive roles between men and women,” Newman said. “We try to have a male and a female staff member on each trip, if possible. One of our goals is to show this positive interaction between men and women, especially for girls, to show them they’re not mentally, physically or emotionally weak.”

Danielle Skinner, ArtSci ’03 and a member of the Outlook board of directors, is now a physical education teacher. She first joined the Outlook staff as a student in 1999, and she said the camp fulfills the needs of many Kingston youths that otherwise go unmet.

“Outlook offers a really important service for the Kingston community,” she said. “A lot of youth in the Kingston community wouldn’t have the opportunity [to go camping] without Outlook.”

When the kids first come to the camp, Karkheck said, they are often homesick. He didn’t have any trouble helping the kids work through their emotions, because he felt the same when he was a camper.

“[During] my first time camping, I put my backpack down and refused to carry it,” he said. Newman said he had a similar encounter with a young camper who refused to complete a portage with his heavy pack.

“My reaction was to put down my canoe and wait for him,” he said. “I waited 45 minutes, and then he said, ‘OK, I’ll try it.’ And then we had a great portage. ...

“Sometimes they don’t know what they can do until they’ve done it, and then they go home and tell their friends and everyone.”

Similarly, Karkheck said that by his first car ride back home, his mother told him he couldn’t stop talking about his experience.

Karkheck never looked back.

He said he still keeps in touch with past counsellors and campers. Last week, Karkheck had dinner with one of the first counsellors he met during his time as a camper.

“Camp Outlook has opened doors for me and has given me a life experience,” he said. “It also teaches you a hell of a lot about kids.”

—With files from Jennifer MacMillan and Matthew Trevisan

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