Camp Aurora: life-changing, life-affirming summer fun
Rainbow Resource Centre's Camp Aurora crew, 2023. Clockwise from top left: Madison Neapew / Blue Thunderbird Ikwe(she/her), Youth Program Coordinator; Tia Oberi (they/them), Youth Support Counsellor; Alice Charles (she/her), Camp Aurora Coordinator; Dene Guillas (he/they), School Equity & Inclusion Coordinator; Bryce Byron (ze/hir), Information & Intake Coordinator - and canoe instructor!
In a recent education workshop provided by Rainbow Resource Centre, the topic of Rainbow’s Camp Aurora—Manitoba's only 2SLGBTQ+ sleep-away youth camp—came up. A participant in the workshop railed against the concept, saying we shouldn't celebrate queer culture with kids but should instead do traditional camp activities. Unintentionally, this participant perfectly encapsulated why Camp Aurora is one of the most crucial programs Rainbow Resource Centre runs.
The simple fact is, for many of the 50 2SLGBTQ+ youth that attend Camp Aurora each summer, this experience is the one and only time and place they can truly be themselves. It's a rare opportunity in their young lives to connect in-person to queer culture, and find peers and role models who’ll show them that they too can be 2SLGBTQ+ and happy, thriving, and loved.
"The impact of attending Camp lasts beyond the four days," says Alice Charles (she/her), Camp Aurora Coordinator. “Camp Aurora is life-changing and life-affirming, and this is achieved by creating the queerest space possible for our youth.”
Led by Alice and supported by Youth Program Coordinator Madison Neapew / Blue Thunderbird Ikwe (she/her), Camp Aurora is one of Rainbow's most vital programs.
Every summer, Camp Aurora welcomes a busload of 2SLGBTQ+ youth to a scenic location in Whiteshell Provincial Park for four days of camp fun, including traditional activities like canoeing and marshmallow roasting, as well as a long list of queer activities like Two-Spirit teachings, gender affirming care workshops, queer sex ed, and drag workshops. Other programming includes a daily polar bear swim, a BIPOC space, Indigenous storytelling, and a talent show.
In addition to Alice and Madison, Camp Aurora involves several Rainbow Resource Centre staff and a team of dedicated volunteers. Joining them Alice and Madison this year are Dene Guillas, School Equity and Inclusion Coordinator, Tia Oberori, Youth Support Coordinator, and Bryce Byron, Intake and Information Coordinator.
While Camp is open to all youth aged 14 to 19, both Alice and Madison highlight the importance of prioritizing underrepresented groups. This can include BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) youth, youth in care, and youth from rural Manitoba, as these groups often face higher rates of discrimination and isolation in their communities, and might fear accessing accurate and supportive programming, health resources, and gender affirming care.
Youth may sometimes arrive shy and subdued—they may not know each other, after all—but by the time Camp is over and head home, they've made lasting friendships and are filled with queer joy.
"It’s been my privilege to see firsthand how much the Camp Aurora experience impacts the youth in such a fun and positive way," says Madison. She notes that this often results in skyrocketing self-confidence from youth. "We want our youth to be proud of who they are and feel that they are valued as 2SLGBTQ+ people. This is so important, as the world, at times, can feel unkind and unsafe to the 2SLGBTQ+ community, which impacts the youth’s self-esteem, identity, and development. By exploring their identities, providing opportunities to meet queer adult mentors, and building a peer support network, youth leave Camp far stronger and far more confident than when they arrived.”
There is something magical about seeing the kids arrive ... and transform into beautiful versions of themselves.
Alice agrees, adding, "Every year, I look forward to the same thing, and it's the transformation right before your eyes. There is something magical about seeing the kids arrive, realize that they are safe and comfortable, shed their protective layers and transform into beautiful versions of themselves. It happens in so many ways, in small scale or large, either way it is amazing to witness."
When Camp Aurora first launched in 2007, it faced steep opposition from homophobic and queerphobic folks, with many hurling unfounded "grooming" accusations. While we've come a long way since then, our recent workshop participant reminded us that we still have a long way to go. Thankfully, though, this won't impact the experience of the 50 youth who, this August, will find friendship, role models, and community in an environment bursting with queerness.
To find out more about Camp Aurora, visit https://rainbowresourcecentre.org/programs/camp.
To ensure programming like Camp Aurora can continue to support Manitoba's 2SLGBTQ+ youth, please donate to Rainbow Resource Centre now.