It’s not often that you come across people as passionate about what they do as Rob Drynan, Executive Director of Camp Oochigeas. Drynan’s father passed away after a battle with cancer, and after a period of reflection the experience led him to volunteer at the camp, in 2003. He says that the time he spent that year at the camp was “enough to change his life”.
Camp Oochigeas is a privately funded, volunteer-based organization that offers kids with cancer and kids affected by childhood cancer the chance to experience camp and all the exciting and enriching things it offers. “I saw the positive environment at Camp Ooch and it had a profound effect on me” Drynan warmly recalls, and this affect has not worn off over the years. It was an easy choice for Drynan to take on the role of ED when it became available. Drynan is passionate about his job, and passionate about the Camp Ooch cause. His commitment since day one reflects the ideals of the camp: “Every child deserves to experience the wonder of camp. After all, enjoying the outdoors and having fun are two integral parts of being a child”.
The Camp Ooch community
As a volunteer-based organization, keeping the camp community intact is number one for Drynan. When he joined the organization, one of the things he immediately noticed needed to change was the high staff turnover rate. Although the team at Ooch is highly entrepreneurial, and extremely hard-working, it was because of their dedication that there was such a turnover: “when I got here, nobody had worked as a paid staff for more than five years – they were burned out and turnover was high. They were almost martyrs” he says. The answer? Drynan decided to move toward a better working environment, and implemented changes to help camp staff achieve a better work-life balance. The camp hired on more people and balanced work schedules.
Drynan explains that in order to function, the camp has to operate like a business, and be “more responsible with our money than most companies do”. It is in this light that the camp really takes to heart the entrepreneurial spirit needed to run things. He says that although some people don’t flourish in a place where entrepreneurship is needed, “the people that come in and stay – they really thrive in this environment”. He adds that the camp runs like a pyramid system, with him at the bottom supporting those above him, all the way up to the camp’s massive base of volunteers (about 300 right now).
The Camp Ooch programs and locale
The camp’s website tells an appealing story about what Ooch can offer: “At Camp Oochigeas, we give children with cancer the chance to escape to a magical world where sunshine and laughter intertwine, a natural wonderland where friendships and memories replace worries about hospitals and illness”.
Camp Oochigeas not only offers an eight-week summer camp, but also year-round programs for children affected by childhood cancer, and also employs four full time staff at SickKids in Toronto who run ongoing programs.
The camp provides programming for both kids who have had cancer kids who have lost a sibling to cancer, and the programs suit children from four years old up to teenagers aged 19. The campsite is situated on a 400-acre piece of land, on a private lake in Muskoka, near Parry sound – about 2.5 hours from Toronto. The camp is close to provincial parks and is therefore able to suit canoe trips for older children. These trips are overnight supervised excursions for more mature kids.
In the autumn, the camp staff and volunteers run eight single-day events and call them “urban Ooches”. On these days, kids take clay mask making classes or do other events, such as attending a Blue Jays game. Drynan says that the camp has implemented these single-day events in order to test the feasibility of an urban recreation site, which will “bring camp to the city”. He beams that “as far as we know, this will be the first in-city recreation site in the world – we’re really, really excited”. The camp also runs ten weekend programs throughout the autumn and winter.
All of the campers at Camp Oochigeas are bonded together by cancer. However, recognizing that otherwise they are all different in experience, the camp staff does its best to make sure the wide range of programming is updated and suits every child. The camp by its very nature helps children to find a sense of belonging, as shared experiences can build their confidence – which helps future growth and development.
One of the most important things about the camp: through the generosity of volunteers and donors, the camp is able to sustain itself with no government funding, which means that the camp experience is provided at no cost to campers’ families.
Camp Oochigeas and the future
Drynan says that Camp Ooch had some good fortune in its capital campaign in 2008, but now the staff is focused on fundraising going forward. The economy has had an impact on the camp to the tune of about 20 per cent in some areas. One fundraiser that has continually been successful is the Sporting Life 10 kilometre run, which takes place in Toronto on Yonge St. This year, the run raised $817,068.73 for the camp – not too far from their $1,000,000 goal. Sporting Life staff and customers brought in $77,979.25 – and from the total raised $1 from every race registration fee and 100 percent of all pledged dollars goes back to
supporting the camp. “People are pretty comfortable giving $20 or $50 or $100” Drynan says, adding that those smaller fundraising events have made up for
areas where things have slowed this year. “We changed our focus and that seemed to work” he explains. “We had to do our normal budget and then our ‘plan B’
budget – making sure that if the wheels fell off we had a plan for how we were going to get through the year – but luckily, so far we haven’t had to activate that.”
Drynan says that Camp Ooch doesn’t see fundraising as “competing for the same dollars”. Rather, their approach is “to try to attract people to our organization because of our brand”. “We focus on life enrichment, and are very positive; we don’t lean on the negative side. To add to our dedication, we have 300 volunteers that are our advocates after they’re finished volunteering, they sing our song. We are not aggressive fundraisers. We make sure we do really good work, and make sure our donors understand how we spend our money.”
The approach has certainly worked so far. Camp Oochigeas and its staff are poised to offer sick children the opportunity to have fun, youthful experiences
even in the most difficult of times, for many years to come. And Drynan says it’s all owed to a committed Ooch community: “We’re only as strong as our community. The community is what really makes up our organization. If you choose to volunteer, you can take part in that community – and I guarantee,
it’s absolutely life changing for anyone who does it”.
For more information on Camp Oochigeas and to donate online, visit www.ooch.org.