Port Coquitlam-funded camp unplugs at-risk youth in peril

A call is going out to help save a unique program that takes marginalized and at-risk youth away from their cell phones to connect them with nature and each other.

The Get Out! camping weekend was started in 2009 as a partnership between the City of Port Coquitlam and Metro Vancouver Parks to get young people from Grades 8 to 12 out into nature without the digital distractions of text messages, Facebook updates and phone calls. It has since expanded to include up to 100 youth from seven municipalities around the Lower Mainland, from Vancouver to Maple Ridge.

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But two years ago the program lost its funding from Metro Vancouver. A grant from the Pacific Parklands Foundation covered half the $15,000 it cost to run the program that year, but since then the seven municipalities have had to go it alone. And rising costs along with the ever-shifting landscape of municipal budgets make the program’s future uncertain, said Chris Eastman, PoCo’s recreation co-ordinator for youth services.

“It’s not a question of finding the youth who need this program,” said Eastman. “But with change comes uncertainty.”

Eastman said since the program started, it’s been an invaluable learning and personal growth tool for youth coping with challenges like socio-economic hardship, academic performance, developmental or physical disabilities and even some minor run-ins with the law. Participants, who apply for the camp through counsellors, youth workers or their school principal, leave their cell phone at home, or deposit it in a container on the bus that transports them to the camp at Sasamat Outdoor Centre in Belcarra Regional Park.

“Although cell phones are a great tool to help people connect, they also hurt connection,” said Eastman. “Without it, the kids play more, they’re more engaged, they’re willing to try more things instead of taking pictures or posting to Facebook.”

Once they arrive at the camp, the kids are thrown into a schedule of activities like high-rope traverses, wall climbs, a scavenger hunt and art projects to connect with their fellow campers and the natural environment around them. The idea, said Eastman, is to challenge the campers by taking them out of their comfort zone without the lifeline of checking in with their Snapchat friends.

“The kids really drop the waterline and realize they don’t need their phones,” said Eastman. “It’s a time to share, a time to connect with one another and make friends for life.”

Eastman said the positive effect can carry on beyond the three-day camping weekend.

“It’s a really moving time,” he said. “They realize they’re not alone.”

And while the campers used to get their phones back when they disembarked from the home-bound bus, they’re now returned an hour or so before they break camp. That’s so they can exchange contact information to stay connected with their newfound friends.

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