Camp Towhee, which is operated by the Child Development Institute (CDI), is hoping to bring Haliburton to its virtual programming participants this year. With their April Break session already started this week (April 12 – 16), the camp is described as a “innovative therapeutic intervention for children and youth with learning disabilities and mental health issues (LDMH)” will have summer sessions in July and August. Photo by Zach Slootsky

Camp Towhee goes virtual, bringing Haliburton home

By Darren Lum

Like everywhere else in the province during this pandemic, there will be a virtual offering at Camp Towhee, which is looking to bring Haliburton to its young participants wherever they are.

The Child Development Institute (CDI), who run Camp Towhee, has been offering a virtual adaptation of its programming for children and youth in an effort to battle social isolation since last year when the pandemic disrupted in-person sessions in Haliburton.

Without participants coming to the Highlands, the camp will bring Haliburton to the participants by showing footage of the area, which was also carried out last year said Trish McKeough, Camp Towhee camp director and manager of therapeutic recreation programs at CDI.

“A couple of staff went to Towhee and ran a camp fire from Towhee. So that’s a more concrete way that kids can feel more connected and I think we’re looking to incorporate that more this year,” she said.

She said there is the potential to use the Camp Towhee location as a backdrop to their Dungeons and Dragons offering, possibly using the example that Orcs have invaded Camp Towhee, illustrating that point with pictures of the camp.

Since its inception in 1968 Towhee has been improving the mental health of children and youth with learning disabilities; empowering them and giving them independence and a sense of belonging through group exercises and specialized programming, as per information provided by the Child Development Institute. Although there was a brief break in programming last fall, Camp Towhee has been running weekly sessions online since the turn of the year. Now, with students home for April Break, the organization has moved to offering daily sessions from April 12 to 16. They are described as an “innovative therapeutic intervention for children and youth with learning disabilities and mental health issues (LDMH).”

McKeough, who has 13 non-consecutive years at Camp Towhee in different capacities, said part of the power of the programming is related to the setting of the Highlands, but also the connections made.

“Part of the magic is Haliburton and part of the magic [is] the connection the kids make to each other and the staff and that’s what we’re very successful at being able to recreate virtually. Giving kids time to connect with each other and support their connections. Staff do a lot of one-on-one check-ins and chats with kids, so kids have that really important connection to their staff. They’re really building that relationship as well,” she said.

Camp Towhee held their summer virtual offerings to fulfill the need for people to have a social outlet and for support. Last year, Camp Towhee offered three two-week daytime sessions for six participants, which were led by two staff. It included Dungeons and Dragons, a food lovers one, called Taste of Towhee, one for movie fans where they watch movies, play movie-based games and then have discussions about the movies, as well as sessions related to leadership and nature.

Dungeons and Dragons is among the most popular sessions they host.

Using a videoconferencing platform like Zoom, participants create their character for the role-playing opportunity, he/she will come up with a back story of their character, determining their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their motivations.

A staff member will play the role of “dungeon master,” who narrates the experience, setting the scene and outlining what the “adventure of the day” or the challenge is for that session. This could be defeating a monster, finding a treasure or rescuing someone. The different participant characters’ will work together to resolve the challenge.

“The problem will be created in a way that it’s big enough that no one character can deal with it on their own, so the kids role play this hero and they work together based on the abilities of their hero to solve the problem,” McKeough said.

Another popular session is the Taste of Towhee. It’s a cooking program that has been offered at the camp for years. Participants learn how to cook and become comfortable with following a recipe. McKeough said it’s an interactive cooking TV show. This is led by a staff member, who communicates before about the dish being made and the required ingredients. There will be 10 sessions, each two hours long, every day for two weeks. The evening programming was open to all participants and included a camp fire and online games such as Sculptionary, which is like Pictionary, but sculpting with Plasticine.

Participation was similar to a typical year at 80 per cent of the usual enrolment.

There was close to 130 registered last summer, 200 for the year with a few repeats, including close to 15 that attended every session.

McKeough said the interesting aspect to this was how some participants registered for the virtual sessions, who never would have considered attending an in-person camp session. After their positive virtual experience, she said, many of these participants have indicated they would go to the camp when possible. Unlike in-person sessions, Camp Towhee allowed participants to be able to enrol in more than one session.

Although she was proud of what the camp was able to provide virtually when they started last year, McKeough admits there was a scramble to organize and implement programming related to the short notice. This year will be different, she said.

“And now with a little more lead time we’re able to be a little broader and deeper and consider all options and get lots of feedback from the kids. You know raise the bar of the programming,” she said.

There are still ideas being considered to bring more of Camp Towhee to participants, who take in the virtual offerings, she said.

“We haven’t totally landed on that yet, but what can we do from camp? How can we be more intentional about creating that vision and imagery, creating that connection to Towhee,” she said.

McKeough said the camp is hopeful for safe in-person meet-ups, whether that’s in the city or at the camp in Haliburton, located a few kilometres outside town off of Hwy. 118.

“We’re prepping very intensely for virtual and also prepping to be ready to do virtual plus, [which are in-person meetups], if circumstances allow and when circumstances allow,” she said. “Time will tell if that is doable.”