By Ilya Bañares, Toronto Star Staff Reporter
Fri., June 21, 2019
Before the summer of 2018, Muriel Pascal had never heard of a summer camp dedicated for children with special needs.
In previous years, Pascal had placed her two boys, Jacob, 14, and Zachary, 11 — both are developmentally delayed — in regular day camps where parents picked up their children after a couple of hours and returned the next day.
But last year, through a close friend, Pascal learned about the Shadow Lake Centre, a camp located by Musselman Lake in Whitchurch-Stouffville that offers a residential program for people with an intellectual disability, ages 7 and above.
The camp is operated by Community Living Toronto, a non-profit organization that seeks to help disabled individuals, and is funded in part through the Toronto Star’s Fresh Air Fund.
When Pascal discovered the centre, she was overjoyed at what the facility had to offer her children — particularly the fact that “they would be cared for one-on-one.”
“I think the overall idea that it was a camp for people with developmental delay really made us feel encouraged because they had never been to or done anything that’s special for them,” Pascal said, referring to the two boys.
At the camp, Pascal said Jacob met with Ryan James, his counsellor, and after four nights and five days came away with an “amazing relationship” — and the same happened with Zachary and his counsellor.
“It was a very positive experience,” Pascal said. “Jacob finds it hard to open up to people, so the fact that he made a friend in Ryan and felt comfortable to open up was amazing.”
Since meeting at camp, Pascal says James has since become Jacob’s respite worker, working with him twice a week throughout the year to spend time with the local community, develop his social skills, and communicate with various other people.
“This year could have been very, very different for us if we hadn’t sent the boys to Shadow Lake,” Pascal said.
The Fresh Air Fund was created by journalist and children’s rights advocate John J. Kelso and adopted by Star publisher Joseph Atkinson in 1901.
It sends more than 25,000 children to more than 100 different summer camps every year. The fund has raised millions of dollars and sent over half a million children to summer camp.
“It was amazing seeing him really transform, from this super shy guy,” said James of his relationship with Jacob.
“He wouldn’t do anything the first day (we met). By the end of the week we were going in the lake, and we were (at) the splash pad, running around camp.”
He says Jacob has become a “super huge” influence on his own life.
“Jacob and I just built this really good, close connection pretty fast. It’s really inspired me to keep working with him,” he said.
“It doesn’t even matter the kind of day I’ve had. I could have had the worst day and then I go to hang out with Jacob and it changes everything, it’s absolutely incredible — and that’s why I keep doing it now.”
James said he has been at the camp for two years, starting as a counsellor and now working as a counselling co-ordinator. As he works full-time at the camp, James continues to meet with Jacob once a week.
“A camp like this is huge, the amount of energy and positivity that comes out of this community is insane. It changes lives like no other,” said James.
HOW TO DONATE
With your donation, the Fresh Air Fund can help send 25,000 disadvantaged and special needs children to camp. The experience gives these children much more than relief from summer heat — it gives them a break in life and memories to last a lifetime. Our target is $650,000.
With files from Emma Sandri
Ilya Bañares is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @ilyaoverseas