Rainbow Camp receives $50,000 from TD

(Left to right) Rainbow Camp co-founder Chris Southin, TD branch manager Laura Newman, TD branch District VP Trevor Rachkowski, Rainbow Camp co-founder Harry Stewart at the cheque presentation. TD donated $50,000 to Rainbow Camp. This money will be used to help the camp run longer next summer. Photo by Megan Pounder/SaultOnline

Rainbow Camp just got a little bit brighter.

Thursday afternoon, TD Canada Trust presented the camp with a cheque for $50,000 at the Cambrian Mall branch as part of the bank’s #TDThanksYou customer appreciation day.

Rainbow Camp – founded in 2012 – is a camp for LGBTQ+ youth, ages 12-17, from both Canada and the U.S. The camp was originally based at Camp McDougall in Thessalon, but recently relocated to Camp Wakonda in 2018.

“Rainbow Camp is a place where LGBT youth can be themselves – no matter where you are on the spectrum, or if you’re not out to your parents, or whatever, it allows them to be who they want to be,”  said Harry Stewart, chair of Welcome Friends Association and Rainbow Camp co-founder. “One of my favourite examples is, if Bob comes in as Bob and may want to try out being Gloria, it’s a place to do it. And we have name tags, and the pronouns they want to go by – mine would be he and they – but somewhere during a couple days into camp, they can change, and they do change. It’s a safe space to try it out. We have a lot of trans kids, and it’s just a real environment where they’re accepted, not only by the staff, but by the other campers. I keep using the word safe space, but that’s what it’s all about. Just to be who they want to be.”

Stewart said the idea for the camp came after he noticed the lack of LGBTQ awareness in both his church and the Sault community.

“We started Welcome Friend Association back in 2009. The idea was that, Chris and I got married – and I’ve belonged to the United Church forever – and there just didn’t seem to be enough awareness of the LGBT community in Sault Ste. Marie and in the faith community, he explained. “So we ran a conference, called Affirming Congregations. We had some religious folks here, we had the local LGBT people here, and then we intermingled for some sessions and meals. And, about 2011, we had our second one, and there were no youth coming. So I had a weak moment, let’s say, and I went to the Camp McDougall board and said ‘can we rent the camp for a week?’ Then in January of 2012, I said to our board that we’re going to do this, and in February, we went down to Seattle to see a camp that was similar – because none of us had ever been to camp, or had no idea how to run one – and we just went from there. We put a camp together for 2012, and the demand just keeps growing. And, as more and more kids find out about us, it’s just been a domino effect.”

This money will be used to extend the length of camp – which is hosting a total of 105 youth this summer, with more on a wait list – from three weeks to four next year. It takes about $50,000 to run the camp for one week.

“(Rainbow Camp) is a place for kids to go. No matter where they are, you know, it’s a place like no other place in the country is like it,” said Stewart. “And it’s really nice up here in Northern Ontario, because it gets them out of the city. And we have a lot of city kids and rural kids that feel alone, and by bringing them up here in a natural environment, it’s just awesome. And they love it. And we love having them.”

“We’ve supported them throughout the years, obviously in a bit of a different capacity than we’ve surprised and supported them with today, but we’ve helped them with their fundraising events,” said Trevor Rachkowski, District VP of the TD branch. “I know they’ve brought some great acts into town, Rick Mercer, Collin (Mochrie) and his wife Deb came in a couple of years ago, so we’ve been around kind of supporting them all the way through.

“I think,since I’ve been back in Northern Ontario – I’m born and raised – being involved in some of these organizations that operate in our community are super important. The bank recently launched it’s Ready Commitment, to support organizations grass-root in the communities that we have, and I think this is a perfect example of using that money to increase the great causes,” he continued, talking about the importance of the bank’s involvement in the community. “So, Laura Newman nominated them as a national hero, and we submitted the story and, with thousands of stories across the country, we picked Harry and Chris’s story to celebrate and reward, and I couldn’t be happier about the cause.”

“It’s just been a whirlwind,” Stewart exclaimed. “And then today, all of this, it’s just amazing.”

To learn more about Rainbow Camp, visit their website at www.welcomefriend.ca/camp or check them out on Facebook.