Q&A with Bryn Harvey-Raymond: A Seasoned Volunteer

volunteer in safety gear on the high ropes course

Are you curious about volunteering with Campfire Circle? Do you wonder if it’s the right opportunity for you? We sat down with Bryn, a volunteer with Campfire for five years. We hope her story inspires you.

CC: How did you first hear about Campfire Circle?

BHR: My involvement with camp began when I was young. I remember being excited by the idea of Campfire Circle (then called Camp Ooch). In the third grade, I had a garage sale to sell my old toys to raise money for camp, as our high school partnered with Campfire Circle through a yearly fundraiser. Once you were a certain age, we got to visit Muskoka for a few days every year. And I knew that once I was old enough, I wanted to volunteer.

volunteers posing for a picture

CC: Why volunteer every year? What keeps you coming back?

BHR: There’s something so magical about seeing the kids on the first day of camp and then seeing them on the last day of camp – their confidence, growth and the seeing the friendships they’ve formed.

Especially seeing first-time campers, watching them learn what camp is. It’s a magical feeling, and as a counsellor, you have a hand in guiding them and teaching them new things.

I’m usually with the youngest kids at camp. At such a young age, they realize that they are not the only kids there with cancer. They make that connection. It’s those little moments that make you go: ‘Ah, this is why we do what we do.’

Overhearing open conversations between campers, parents, siblings with no judgment, and catching candid moments, you realize the magic you create for kids and families with cancer – those special moments are why I keep me coming back.

Also, it’s so much fun. “Who wouldn’t want to hang out with kids and do activities all day?!?”

CC: What programs have you volunteered in?

BHR: I started with day camp and I volunteered at in-city community programs. After the pandemic, the first thing Campfire Circle brought back was overnight camp. It wasn’t something I had done before, but I wanted to give it a try. I did one overnight camp session and fell in love with it. I’ll be starting with in-hospital programs in April.

CC: Do you have a favourite program?

BHR: I love family camp at Rainbow Lake, but there’s something special about kids camp at Muskoka. I think just being with kids is so magical. I feel bad saying I have a favourite because there’s good parts to all of the programs. However, day camp is true to my roots, and I will always go back to day camp.

girl outside at camp in the winter with camper

CC: Can you describe a typical day at overnight camp?

BHR: Well, you get woken up pretty early by the kids! Usually in the morning, you get them ready in their swim suits and head down for polar bear dip at around 7:30 am. The earlier you get there, the earlier you’re done. Otherwise, you’re waiting in line for your turn and then waiting in line for the showers.

After the polar bear dip, you get ready for ‘Circle Up,’ which is right before breakfast. This is where we do our daily gratitude and introductions. Then we get ready for breakfast. Heading into meals is so chaotic – the kids are so excited and all over the place – you’re trying to get everyone to wash their hands, and get them settled.

After breakfast, there are three scheduled activities in the morning. You get to go canoeing, kayaking, arts and crafts, music, woodshop… there’s something for everyone, which is nice. Once a session you go waterskiing and also do the adventures course (the high ropes), which takes up the whole morning.

After morning activities, we Circle Up again for lunch. Lunch is often more calmer than breakfast and dinner. We end lunch with the nap song and lead into rest hour. After rest hour, we choose our electives, which is up to whatever a kid would like to do. So, they can take acting classes, race in a canoe or do a specific arts and crafts. Kids can do whatever they’re interested in. And they can choose to do the same activity every afternoon the whole time they are at camp.

Once again we circle up and we get ready for dinner, which is fun. All the meals are fun – lots of cheers and chanting. After dinner, we get ready for the evening program. This is a camp-wide activity that we all do together and it’s often tied to the theme of the camp session. On the first and last day, we gather round the campfire. On other evenings, it changes every day: sometimes we do group activities in stations, a scavenger hunt, trivia, or sometimes, the games are age-specific and we split up into groups.

After the evening program, we get together to sing and end with the good night song. Then we head to our cabins. Depending on the age of your cabin, the kids go straight to bed, or we play board games. It’s also an opportunity to get any medication from the nurses if needed. We usually do roses and thorns before bed [editor’s note: reflecting on the positives and challenges of the day] – which is my favourite activity!

CC: What is it like to have kids on treatment?

BHR: At a typical overnight session, many of the kids are in active treatment [editor’s note: In 2022, 50 percent of kids were in active treatment]. At day camp, 70 percent of kids are on active treatment. When I was a counsellor at day camp in 2018 and 2019, most of the kids in my cabin were on active treatment. You’ll notice some of them have lines, some of them have ports, some of them get really tired quickly. But honestly, you can barely tell. The kids are just so happy to be there. If you didn’t know necessarily, you wouldn’t make that connection. But you do get kids who are easily tired, need more breaks, and kids on treatment get sunburned easily so you need to reapply sunscreen. Those are the things you pay attention to.

Most of the time, kids are so resilient. And when they’re at camp, they’re just so happy to have any sense of normalcy in their life. They’re usually isolated. Even though they’re on active treatment, they’re so happy to be around other kids.

Sometimes it can be hard. You go home at the end of night and you make that realization and you get really sad and it’s tough, but then you remember, even though these kids are going through a hard time, they had SO MUCH FUN today, and that’s because of the work that we do.

It’s really about meeting kids where they’re at and doing what you need to do in order for them to have a good time.

girl at camp sitting on a chair made out of a tree

CC: Who is volunteering for?

BHR: I think we assume that volunteering is to help kids, and form relationships with kids, families and siblings. But it’s also for you. What I get out of volunteering is a happiness boost, a confidence boost. I have more gratitude, and I’ve made lifelong friendships and connections that will help me in my career.

There are people who have been volunteering for more than 30 years and I’ve learned so much from them. I have also learned so much about working with kids with behaviourial needs. I learned so much about cancer and cancer treatment than I ever thought I would. These are things that are going to benefit my life in so many ways.

Volunteering gives me the giddy, butterfly feeling because it’s so fulfilling, and I feel so lucky to get to see these kids and form these relationships. Obviously, what we do is for the kids, but by giving to kids, you get so much more back.

And there’s something nice about a kid giving you a compliment. It’s the truest form of flattery. Because they’re honest. They’re not going to lie or make it up. When a kids says something nice about you, it’s an, “oh my goodness, I did that??”

CC: How has volunteering helped you with your job and your corporate life?

BHR: My whole life I really thought I wanted to go to med school and I was very passionate about that. Then I got into university and started volunteering at camp, and I realize I care so much more about the social aspect of healing than the medical aspect. And I think camp taught me a lot of ways that I can do that in my career. I’ve gotten to work with kids with autism and down syndrome and I would have never learned that I would enjoy it. It showed me a more holistic view of medicine and ways I can work with this population, without it being about the diagnosis. We go so beyond that. We talk about kids’ recovery from the mental aspect and the social aspect of treatment, not just the physical aspect of treatment. And it really opened up so many more options – I realize I can take many paths in my career.

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