TORONTO - On Aug. 11 campers travelled about three hours from Toronto to St. Mary of Egypt Refuge for the inaugural week of the "Youth Camp ... with a difference."

"We're not so much wanting to entertain kids,” said Mary Marrocco, the refuge’s executive director. “We really want to help them to become strong, solid people by teaching them skills (and) doing that in a community way and having them actually contributing to the building of the place."

That’s literally building. These campers, aged 13 to 18, were to spend seven days evaluating design concepts, learning basic woodworking skills and constructing a physical structure — in this case an outhouse.

They’ll do this while still enjoying the 1.16-square-kms of wooded property in Queensborough in eastern Ontario, working on crafts and participating in prayer (which is optional as the camp is non-restrictive).

According to Marrocco, even money didn’t get in the way of registration for campers.

"Our priority is for the people for whom the fee might be difficult,” she said. “If people phone us and say, 'I'd really like to send my kids there but I really cannot afford to pay the $250,' then we say you're first on our list."

A limit of 15 campers ensures all-inclusiveness as each person will have a designated role during the construction process, said Marrocco.  

"Another difference is that it's not a big camp with a couple hundred kids and staff, it's more of a family atmosphere," she said. "None of the kids are building it by themselves, but they'll all be given a real part to do that will contribute to the real building."

Overseeing the construction is Luc Lafond, a 58-year-old semi-retired automated equipment designer. Lafond’s involvement, as well as the camp itself, came about last fall when he stepped forward to organize a group of volunteers and lead them in building a cabin for the refuge. During the three weeks of construction something changed in Lafond.

“In the past I was always giving my money, doing what I would have called my share,” said Lafond. “I realized that it is never too late to start helping others and it’s not just by putting money in an envelope that is the most efficient.”

With this new sense of satisfaction from community service, and having observed a lack of basic construction skills in young volunteers, Lafond offered to co-ordinate a construction-themed summer camp.

"What I realized was that the kids who were helping us, they didn't know how to hold a hammer or use a screwdriver,” he said. “I said this is mind boggling. When I was a kid I grew up with my dad in his garage and he showed me everything. I never realized how lucky I was to have a father that showed me all that so I thought maybe I could turn around and do the same for those kids who do not have that opportunity.”

Marrocco, and the refuge’s sponsors who were involved in the conversations, liked Lafond's idea so much that soon he found himself volunteering for a second camp. Week two is aimed at the parishioners of St. Silouan the Athonite, mission parish of the Carpatho-Russian Orthodox diocese of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. With campers slightly older, most between 16 and 18, and of a specific faith, the projected will reflect their Orthodox faith.

“The second week is mainly directed to the kids at our church,” said Lafond, who was baptized Catholic but attends an Eastern Orthodox church with his wife and daughter. “We’re building the Iconostasia, the wall in an Orthodox Church separating altar and the people.”

Although St. Mary of Egypt Refuge is a Catholic faith-based refuge, the parish’s mission, St. John the Compassionate Mission, has partnered with the site since opening in 2001.

“We are really in a partnership with the refuge. It has to do with the personal relationship that Mary Marrocco had over the years with the mission,” said Deacon Pawel Mucha. “The relationship between us and the refuge is so good. I would say the distinctions (between religions) are pretty blurred.”

He repeatedly said what is more important is the “common ideal of service” shared between the mission and refuge.

The second camp begins on Aug. 17.

Published in Canada: Toronto-GTA