In our ongoing series profiling organizations who’ve made – and continue to make – a huge difference in our lives and our communities, we turn to Camp Oochigeas,an innovative charity giving children diagnosed with cancer the opportunity to enjoy being kids.
In celebration of their 30th anniversary and an upcoming birthday bash, we asked executive director Alex Robertson to share the organization’s history, mission and unique programming and how they continue to impact the lives of children and their families in Ontario in far-reaching ways.
And So It Began
“You have failed only when you have failed to try. Act as if it were impossible to fail and it will be.” – Camp Oochigeas (Ooch) foundation, mantra and ethos.
In 1983, an ambitious group of board members at Ronald McDonald House Toronto banded together to form a summer camp unlike any other in Canada. Exclusively serving children with cancer, it would be privately funded, staffed entirely by volunteers and completely free.
A camp where every child, no matter how debilitating their illness, would be provided an opportunity to explore enriching, challenging, fun experiences through what is fondly referred to today as the Magic of Ooch. Singing songs around a campfire, paddling a canoe and making new friends may seem simple to some, but for a child with cancer these moments create memories that are cherished for a lifetime. They are the catalyst that builds confidence and restore hope.
Camp Ooch is a place where, for a few glorious days, kids who had been forced to grow up too fast can be kids once again.
Where We’ve Come
Today as Ooch celebrates 30 years of impact, we look back with pride at the exponential growth we’ve experienced over the years. Serving over a thousand children with and affected by cancer, camp programs have been developed to include siblings, bereaved siblings and parents.Ooch continues to be the only residential camp in Ontario to offer on-site chemotherapy IV treatment and blood transfusions. Often referred to as the social cure for cancer, we’ve expanded programs year-round in Muskoka, at the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), Ooch Downtown in the heart of Toronto and three other regional cancer centres.
Receiving no government funding, Ooch relies on the generous support of foundations, donors and volunteers. And all programs are provided at no cost to families.
As we expand to meet the increased demand for Ooch programs, we are challenged to find innovative and unique opportunities that retain an intimately engaged community. The Ooch community is the backbone that supports the ethos and magic of camp.
To The Future
Looking forward, with an increased demand for resources, Ooch is committed to growing and expanding the reach of our programs to meet the need. Currently serving 40 percent of the population of kids diagnosed with cancer across Ontario, our goal is to reach 100 per cent.
With over 450 volunteers, 41 full-time staff and a culture voted one of Canada’s top 10 most admired by Waterstone Human Capital, we remain dedicated to our mission and to building programs that meet the ever-changing landscape of paediatric healthcare.
Our philosophy is simple: Kids with, and affected by, childhood cancer deserve an opportunity to experience the fun, friendship and challenge camp provides. It is here, at Ooch, that kids are defined by who they are. Not what they have.
Perhaps the best way of summing up what we try and achieve at Ooch is with a letter we received by an elementary school teacher writing about a student of hers, a camper at Ooch, named Chloe.
“As an elementary school teacher, I often ask my students to write a paper on what they believe defines them. Each story is unique and provides insight into a child’s development, value and self-esteem. After teaching for 10 years, there is one story that stands out. Nine-year-old Chloe chose to write a difficult but beautiful reflection about her journey with cancer. She included challenges and successes but most memorable she included memories of Camp Ooch. When summarizing her paper she concluded with a profound statement. ‘Cancer doesn’t define me, Camp Ooch does.’”
To find out more go to www.ooch.org
Executive Director Alex Robertson joined Camp Oochigeas in 2005. Prior to his work with Ooch, Alex was with The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut, for kids with life-threatening illnesses. As a consultant with The Association of Hole in the Wall Camps, Alex has helped to grow new camp programs for kids living with HIV/AIDS in Africa and South-East Asia.
Alex is a certified trainer of Behavioural Therapeutic Crisis Intervention. He graduated from the University of Victoria with a BFA in Theatre.