Written by Kristy Graves, a member of our Young Person’s Advisory Council and former young person in care.
Now that we are finally getting a taste of summer weather, I can’t help but reflect back on my time at camp because each summer it’s where my heart is still drawn. Each year from the ages of 11 through 18 the Foundation granted me money to attend Jungle Safari Zoo Camp in Orono, Ontario; a magical place that I will forever cherish and credit to comfort in my own skin.
This was the first place where I ceased being “Kristy the foster kid” and got to discover who “just Kristy” was; a place that fostered my passion for knowledge, adventure, and people. Truly, the place that I credit largely to the person I am today.
You see Zoo Camp is not your average camp. Aside from the fact that you are living at a zoo for your week or more at camp (yes, it’s as cool as you’re thinking), it’s a place of self-discovery, of testing boundaries and making lasting friendships. You spend the week interacting hands-on with a variety of animals from the “creepy” and misunderstood like tarantulas, to the heartbreakingly beautiful like the tigers and Amur Leopards. You learn of their habitats, and diets, and of their extinction rate. And somewhere along the way you learn about yourself. You face your fears of the animals you’re uncomfortable with and army crawling through caves deep underground. You get silly at the talent show, you get dirty playing mesker ball in the mud (look it up, it’s so much fun!). At some point very soon in the week, without even realizing it, you stop with all of your pretences and fake charades that are so common amongst pre-teens and teens and you’re just yourself. It’s at this time that you realize you’re surrounded by amazing staff, and a group of friends that will be with you for years (I met one of my oldest friends there when I was 11). The fear of being yourself slowly dissipates and you go home a changed person.
I can’t promise that the change will stay once you’re back in the real world where pressures are high and bullies are tough, but at Zoo Camp you’re just you. It’s a unique bubble of paradise.
I can say, however, that if you go back time and time again, which most people do, the change will become permanent. I am 23 now and I still miss it all the time. But I know that some of my best qualities were developed there. I learned to love myself, to be outspoken, to stand-up for those who don’t have a voice. I learned that my past was not a scary terrible thing and that it did not dictate who I am. I learned how to invest in true friendships, I learned to overcome my fears and push my own limits, to become the best version of me I could possibly be. All of these things stick with me now, and will for the rest of my life. So as the summer weather calls forth these memories, I think of how I am forever thankful for my experience there. I only wish that every child could have such an opportunity.