Camp fYrefly is a four-day leadership retreat for LGBTQ youth

Camp fYrefly is Canada's first and only leadership retreat for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-identified, two-spirited, intersexed, queer, questioning and allied youth.

The residential overnight camp took place July 9 to 12 at Girl Guides Camp Jubilee across the Bow River from Cochrane. With 44 youth ranging in ages from 14 to 22 years, six to eight campers were grouped into seven pods, with two youth leaders, one adult mentor for those leaders and a counsellor.

With the bullying and issues that the LGBT community faces, often times their teenage years can be a lot more challenging. By the time they reach their twenties, sometimes they can still be figuring things out. Discovering yourself takes time, and it is normal if it changes over the years. What Camp fYrefly does is try to equalize everybody in a safe location and say, "You are perfect the way you are, here are some ways you can start dealing with the things in your life."

Camp fYrefly is about fostering, youth, resiliency, energy, fun and leadership. The "Y" is emphasised to highlight the significant role of youth in the camp. The camp's philosophy revolves around a youth-for-youth approach, but the camp co-ordinators note that there is so much more to the four-day youth retreat that the seven letter acronym.

"For me, my experience at camp was how impactful and powerful this experience of being in a safe place for the first time for a lot of youth was," said Hilary Mutch, the sexual and gender minority education co-ordinator at the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, working with homophobia and transphobia programs for LGBT youth in Calgary and co-ordinator for Camp fYrefly.

At Camp fYrefly, many people experience being open about themselves in a safe environment for the first time. There is lots of support, and they explore their identities with other people who are going through similar experiences.

Validating identity, finding and feeling comfort while learning more about oneself and loving your identity were some of the goals of the camp.

Mutch was awed by the results of the four days.

"I think a lot of the time when we see the logistics and elements of a program on paper we don't realize the sort of depth and impact," Mutch said.

Elise Hessel has been a camper at Edmonton's Camp fYrefly for the past four summers. She heard about the camp through a staff member at the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services when she was 14.

Now 19, she felt it was time to take on a different role. This year Hessel was the assistant coordinator at Calgary Camp fYrefly. Doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work, her duties included communicating with camp participants, helping to plan and execute volunteer training, supporting the volunteers and campers, assisting with workshops and ensure activities and transitions went smoothly.

With a program-heavy weekend, there was a mix between workshops, mental health, art and social justice activities. There was also time for the youth to rest and reflect, which helps build personal resiliency.

"We kind of have an arts focus at the camps. It comes from the lens of learning and empowerment. The youth have a lot of opportunity to experiment with self-expression and different artistic mediums," said Mutch.

A showcase was held on the final evening of the camp, displaying the youths' talents with both individual and group performances.

"It's really, really cool to see that blossoming that occurs in the campers over the four days," said Mutch.

A highlight of the camp for Mutch was the "gratitude circle," or a "circle of appreciation," held at the end of the night where the youth shared their moments from the day. "Just kind of standing there and looking at the strong community, hearing the experiences of the youth in such a candid and really beautiful way are some of the really powerful and beautiful moments for me," said Mutch.

Being a fYrefly is all about finding your own light and shining. For Mutch, it means "being an agent for social change by illuminating the things we still have to work towards and shining the light for other individuals."

A big takeaway for Hessel is the hard realization that they can't keep these kids in the Camp fYrefly "bubble" for the other 361 days of the year. In her experiences talking with these youth, she is reminded that the world isn't a safe place yet for everyone, and that there is still very much a need for a camp like this.

A change the rest of the world needs to make is "celebrating diversity and recognizing oppression and how it exists in our country and our world," added Mutch.

Hessel also offered some insightful tips on accepting identity. "I think the main thing to remember when trying to accept the identities of others is to just listen to them." She noted using proper pronouns, avoiding terms that could make people feel uncomfortable and standing up when other people are being offensive are ways that you can be an ally and make a world of difference to a person who is just trying to fit in.

Photo2Today Bidulka brought Camp fYrefly to Saskatchewan in 2009 and have been running it ever since.

Photo Courtesy of Tony Bidulka
Co-founder Tony Bidulka went through some trying times growing up, thinking that he was the only gay kid in the world. He wanted to make sure that no one questioning their identity was alone in their journey.

He and his husband brought Camp fYrefly to Saskatchewan in 2009 after opting out of wedding gifts and accepting donations to fund the start up.

This past weekend, Aug. 15 to17 was their seventh time running the camp in Saskatchewan, which has always been sold out.

Bidulka explained that it does the heart good knowing that you are fulfilling a need for something that has been around for a so long. "Everybody has that story where their cousin or their brothers kid or aunt or somebody has gone through something and wishes that they had this [camp] when they were a young person."

With such a transformation weekend for the youth, the camp has now implemented a caregiver and parent session. Whoever is involved in the youth members life is invited a few hours prior to the end of camp, are able to meet with other parents going through a similar experience with their child and learn how their loved one changed over the four days.

The camp is continuing to develop across Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatchewan and a fourth branch is starting next year in Peterborough, Ontario.

Camp fYrefly Saskatchewan even held a career fair during this year's camp, where a range of successful business members of the LGBT community conversed with the youth and demonstrated just how far they can go in life, the importance of obtaining an education, and how there are no limits.

Camp fYrefly is also beginning to expand their reach to the youth by making it's way into schools around Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The camp is shining light on the fact that there is help available, we're all a little different and life is worth living.

Hessel noted, "This is also a big thing that the youth realize upon coming to camp — that they're not alone."

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