A Roundtable Discussion with Leaders in Education

by Chris Tompkins | March 9, 2023

Veteran educators, Brian Marenchin, Greg Peck and Paul Picard, all from the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board, together with Muskoka Woods’ Director of Schools & Groups, Lucas Durocher, participated in the podcasts’ inaugural round table discussion to talk about education, the board’s unique relationship with Muskoka Woods, and camp’s impact on youth development.

Camp education: the importance of taking kids away

In recounting how the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board camp experience came to be (currently all Grade 9 students in the board go on a trip to Muskoka Woods), the educators explain that they were after something different than an amusement park or trip to Niagara Falls — something that would better symbolize the culmination of a year’s work. Greg says the reason the camp trip took such a hold was because it had a purpose.

“Camp is not about you,” he says. “It’s about you being a leader in your school when you come back.”

Proving his point is a letter they produced from the archives, written by a 13-year-old:

“I have returned from camp as a more positive, empathetic and grateful person. I try to use my camp experience and enhanced leadership skills to make a difference in the lives of others, in my family, in my school, and in my greater community.”

The group singles out leadership skills as something that camp really helps foster in the kids. Brian says it’s because kids are challenged, but in a safe environment. According to Lucas, camp also helps kids grow their self confidence by enabling them to try new things and by encouraging them to be themselves, which is so important.

“That confidence … carries way beyond the experience here at Muskoka Woods,” Lucas says.

A sense of community

Brian, Greg and Paul all speak about how the sense of community is deepened when kids get outside of the classroom and the importance that community has in our kids’ development into healthy, thriving adults. For the Windsor educators, the community the camp experience has created is two-fold — there is the local community that enthusiastically supports the board and makes camp possible, and the community that is created among the students, board-wide. Paul says that sending kids to Muskoka Woods has become more than a school decision or a board mandate. It is now community-driven.

“It’s a no-fault zone, where you’re trying to do your personal best and not be the best,” Greg says. “Where it’s all about praising each other and encouraging each other and supporting each other and enthusiasm.”

He concludes by expanding on what camp offers in terms of community, saying that there is no better way to develop specific skills than by creating a community where those things are valued and enforced.

A great place to share

When asked about how the kids attending camp have changed over the years, and even since the pandemic, Lucas speaks to what he has observed as an employee at Muskoka Woods. He says he has witnessed a positive change in the kids in that they are more interested in the relational aspect of camp rather than doing the big action-packed activities.

“I know that we do have a mental health crisis on our hands,” Lucas explains. “But if it has caused any good, it is that people are more interested in talking about how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking and how they’re processing things.”

For more on how educators, Brian, Greg and Paul created a thriving community of self-confident leaders by bringing them to Muskoka Woods, listen to the entire episode at the top of this post.

Visit our website to discover a variety of other guests that we’ve had on the show. Shaping Our World episodes are also available wherever you get podcasts.


[00:00:00.000] – Speaker 1

[00:00:12.480] – Speaker 5
Season on the podcast, we’re going to do a few different things and mix it up a bit. And today we have a panel conversation. We’re joined by four leaders in the education world who have been part of a very specific program that took kids away on a camp experience. And so today we have Paul Picard, a native of Essex County, retired after 41 years in education. In August of 2010, he was appointed to the position of director of education for the board and oversaw Catholic education in Windsor and Essex County. Previous to his appointment as director, he served as superintendent of education for both human resources and facility services. Recently, Paul also served as the deputy registrar for the Ontario College of Teachers. We also have Greg Peck. Greg is a retired teacher, healthy active living consultant, and was a vice principal and principal with the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board for 32 years. He’s also the co-founder of the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board Muskoka Wood’s leadership experience. Brian Marenchin is also here. Over his 27-year career, Brian has taught a variety of grades from kindergarten through Grade 8. The second part of his career has been spent as a vice principal and principal, and he’s currently the principal of a school where he began his teaching career.

[00:01:36.920] – Speaker 5
Throughout his years, he’s continued to be a voice for the young people today. Brian continues to coach various sports through elementary school schools. He also coaches a variety of club level basketball teams. Recently, he has included mentoring young teachers in the various activities he does in the elementary system. Our last and not least guest is Lucas Durocher. Lucas is the Schools and Groups Director at Muskoka Woods. He started working at Muskoka Woods when he was 17 and hasn’t missed a summer since. He’s taken on a wide range of positions from counseling to managing arts and athletics activities in the summer camp. His current role is perfectly suited to him as he’s a graduate of Teacher’s College himself and loves being outdoors. He’s passionate about healthy, active living, education, sports, and raising up young leaders. He’s an authentic leader who cares deeply about the purpose behind his work. In this conversation, you’ll hear the four of them, and me a little bit, talk about the value of taking kids from their normal environment as part of their educational experience away in the outdoors. What does it mean to build community, to try new activities, to learn new things, and to get away from your normal environment as part of the learning learning and development experience.

[00:03:01.520] – Speaker 5
I think sometimes we underestimate what extracurricular activities and experiences do for our young people and our students as they grow up. We all know there’s a mental health crisis, you’ll hear us talk about it today, where young people are desperate for things that build into their resilience. And getting outdoors and outside and in nature and trying activities is just one of the ways that we can help work against some of the struggles young people have. In today’s conversation, there is some recording that’s not quite the normal quality, so you might need to turn it up and listen in. We apologize for that, but we wanted to keep this conversation as one of our podcast because there’s some really great things that I want you to hear. Listen in as we talk today about taking.

[00:03:51.000] – Speaker 1
Kids away. This is a little bit different for our interviews and we have a group of people. But before we get going, we’re going to take a minute just to get to know all of our guests today. So why don’t we start with you, Paul? Paul, what shaped your world when you were a teenager or a young person?

[00:04:13.720] – Speaker 6
Our worlds were shaped, I believe, at that particular.

[00:04:17.420] – Speaker 2

[00:04:19.440] – Speaker 6
By neighborhoods, by neighborhood schools, by friends in the neighborhood. We didn’t have educational resources, we didn’t have co curricular resources or anything else. We made up our own things, but it taught us some remarkable things. We probably when we get into. But that’s dramatically different than the world that we see today.

[00:04:53.360] – Speaker 1
Yeah, it’s true. Communities and neighborhoods playing in the playgrounds are all different things than they are today. What about you, Greg? Help us to get to know you when you were young. What shaped your world when you were a kid or a teenager?

[00:05:06.860] – Speaker 2
Chris, I think pretty much along the same lines as Paul. I think for me it was relationships in my life in the early years, particularly with family, with friends, they shaped my world. Certainly some teachers, significant teachers in my life shaped my world. Some shaped it in the way that probably wasn’t the best thing. But I had some great coaches too, while I was growing up that shaped my world. But those relationships with people in my life as I grew up. I also think my environment is always been where I grew up. I grew up poor, so I think that shaped my world view of how kids with limited resources look at their world and what their needs are. So for me, it was certainly people, relationships, experiences, environment, and opportunities. But again, I think For me, the strongest part was my background in poverty, which helped me understand the nature of a lot of the work we do in education.

[00:06:09.020] – Speaker 1
Yeah, that’s great. Brian, what about you? What shaped your world when you were young?

[00:06:13.940] – Speaker 4
I had a rural upbringing. I grew up on a farm. Having to earn and work for your existence was a big piece of my upbringing. Faith was a piece of that and playing sports. Not necessarily neighborhoods because it was a rural setting. I was fortunate enough in the wintertime when farming wasn’t happening, hockey was a big piece for me. Then once I transitioned into high school, again, the coaching in.

[00:06:53.190] – Speaker 2
There and.

[00:06:54.380] – Speaker 4
Some really significant positive teaching role models were a big piece that helped me shape and mold and get me ready for what I’m doing today.

[00:07:08.220] – Speaker 1
Yeah, that’s great. Lucas, you? What about you when you were younger?

[00:07:12.310] – Speaker 3
Yeah, I grew up in the Muskoka area myself, so a local kid to Muskoke Woods, so loved the outdoors, fishing, all that stuff. Similar to you guys, played a lot of sports. Coaches and teachers were a big influence. I actually really loved school growing up. My dad was even a teacher and a coach, often of mine, so he was a big influence in my life. Those would be the main things, just being outside, playing sports, and being with friends.

[00:07:37.530] – Speaker 1
That’s great. Brian, Greg, Paul, you’ve all spent some official time in the education world. Lucas, you went to teach at college, but we sucked you into Muskoku woods. We’ll get to you in a minute. But the Windsor guys, why don’t you just give us each, starting with Paul, and we’ll go same order, Paul, Greg, and Brian, just give us a snapshot of what you’re currently doing right now for work or retirement or what you’ve done. Help us understand how you’ve been involved in shaping the worlds of young people.

[00:08:09.020] – Speaker 6
Everything gets somewhat confusing in the context of the reality of the COVID world that we’ve been in. So we’ve all gotten into a three year time warped. I did have the opportunity of doing, just at the outset of COVID, which is great at playing on my part, was I acted as the registrar for the College.

[00:08:43.080] – Speaker 2
Of Teachers for about a year.

[00:08:48.040] – Speaker 2

[00:08:49.800] – Speaker 6
Opened my eyes to a amount of things from a bureaucracy perspective. You’re at all familiar with the Teachers College there’s a College of Teachers around here, and their disciplinary stuff and everything else. Virtually, every complaint against the teacher in the province.

[00:09:10.410] – Speaker 2
Somehow for.

[00:09:12.100] – Speaker 6
That eight month period came across my desk.

[00:09:15.980] – Speaker 1
Oh, boy.

[00:09:16.900] – Speaker 6
And so it gave you quite a perspective on education as it currently sits throughout the world. And then when COVID hit, a lot of the skills that we developed collaboratively, particularly Greg and I at the outside of a lot of these things, came in extremely handy in trying to mold the group of people to deal with the crisis when you’re dealing in a bureaucratic environment.

[00:09:53.060] – Speaker 2

[00:09:54.020] – Speaker 6
Was not used to that. They used to call them the shots, not be right in the middle of the war.

[00:10:00.040] – Speaker 1

[00:10:02.280] – Speaker 6
Reality gave me an opportunity to see things through reading things through parents’ eyes, through kids’ eyes. It was sobering, to say the least, let’s put it that way. But it definitely, then, as a result of that, altered my perspective dramatically, validated what I already.

[00:10:29.750] – Speaker 2
Knew, and.

[00:10:31.380] – Speaker 6
Moved me in a much more direct way towards what’s necessary for the future.

[00:10:42.920] – Speaker 1
Yeah. We could probably go for a whole lot in depth on that. But yeah, thanks for that perspective. Look forward to hearing a bit more in this conversation. What about you, Greg?

[00:10:56.760] – Speaker 2
Well, I retired over 60 years ago, so I’ve been put out the posture, but what has basically stayed with me and probably the greatest blessing I ever had was being involved in taking the help of students to camp as a health and physical educator and a healthy active living advocate. That was my passion when I was teaching and when I was a principal of principal consulting. I carry that with me today. I carried out taking kids to camp even after I retired voluntarily for quite a number of years. Then I finally passed the torch along to younger people. But today, I think my focus is taking all that I’ve learned from my camp experiences and the relationships I formed at camp, but nurturing my own children, which adult children, and also my poor grandchildren. Because my goal now as a parent is to basically help them understand that they can make a difference in the world and that life is about giving and not getting. Those kinds of life lessons that, to be honest, I learned a lot of that through my relationships at camp and the people that I’m sitting in this room with.

[00:12:22.660] – Speaker 1
That’s one of the powerful things about being away and going to camp together are the relationships formed. I’m sure you guys had rich friendships before, but I know that they were deepened at camp together at Ms. Cocoa Woods, maybe even up to some mischief together, too. But that’s, again, for more stories later. Brian, what about you? What are you doing currently?

[00:12:47.180] – Speaker 4
Currently, I am still working. I’m currently in the work world and I’m approaching the end. But spent a lot of time still coaching, mentoring, and.

[00:13:02.670] – Speaker 2

[00:13:03.460] – Speaker 4
Been a part of, I guess, the torch being passed from.

[00:13:07.980] – Speaker 2
The camp and.

[00:13:10.260] – Speaker 4
The experience as well as our board sports council experience. So heavily involved in still doing those two things as well as what we do in the school on a day.

[00:13:24.060] – Speaker 1
To day basis.

[00:13:25.460] – Speaker 4
But also, it’s been mentioned about family, my girls are out of the house now. But still, the experiences that I’ve had through my time at camp and relationships with the people, is trying to pass.

[00:13:46.320] – Speaker 2
That on to them.

[00:13:48.620] – Speaker 4
It was mentioned already about doing and leaving a positive footprint on the world in terms of giving. That’s the focus now. It’s a little bit, like I said, approaching the end and I’m starting to get a little melancholy.

[00:14:05.980] – Speaker 1
About it. Well, before we get to Lucas, let me just add, Paul, Greg, and Brian are great communicators. They’re also very humble for our listeners. These are three of the most seasoned, respected teachers, principals, administrators in the education system around. And we spend a lot of time with teachers and people that work with kids. And we’ve been pretty blessed to work with such insightful, wise, and caring people who really are out for the best of students. So I’m looking forward for all of you to hear what goes behind. I know they wouldn’t say all of that, but I can say that for them. But before we get to that, Lucas, tell us a little bit about who you are and what you’re doing to shape the world of young people today.

[00:14:56.210] – Speaker 3
Yeah, for sure. To just even echo what you’re saying there, Chris, what I do is I look after the schools and groups program here in Ms. Cook Woods, designing and executing programs that aim to be life changing for people who come from school, school boards, youth groups, and a whole bunch of other things. Just to play off what you’re saying there with the program that these guys have run, seeing it and everything that I’ve heard about it, it’s even magical sometimes is the word that’s used to describe it. I’m excited to even dive into hearing more about what goes behind it in the planning stages and getting everybody bought in. But yeah, I guess what I do beyond designing these programs that we love to run here in Ms. Kirkwood, I lead the team that also makes it come to life, trains all of our staff. We’ve got all the activities, the rope staff, the fun people who make it all come to life in the kitchen as well. And beyond that, one of my big passions is even just mentoring young people here at camp. I really get a lot of joy out of that.

[00:15:57.480] – Speaker 3
Just being in the position to journey along the side with people who come and work with us seasonally, usually young adult stages in their life, whether it be just in the later stages of high school and college or entering the workforce and being able to talk to them, hear what they’re interested in, what they want, and coach them along the way.

[00:16:17.060] – Speaker 1
Yeah, that’s great. Thanks, Lucas. One of the things that as an observer and as someone who pays attention to what happens in the lives of young people I’ve witnessed, and even in through our podcast, it’s come out, is just some concerns, even as we’re coming out of the pandemic, about all that’s been lost over the last number of years and who young people are today, how they’ve not just been shaped by their environments and their families and their relationships and their school. But specifically, as we’ve been through such a disruptive time in our lives, there’s just a growing concern for our kids and young people. And what can we do as people who care about kids to help invest in them, to help shape them, to help them on their developmental path? What does it look like to be a caring adult who comes alongside them? And today, we wanted to dive into the education world and what it looks like as our young people are being educated and talk about the role that outside of school experiences play in shaping young people. And that’s why we have this group on today. And so we’re going to dive right into it.

[00:17:25.700] – Speaker 1
So for the Windsor guys, you’ve been coming for more than a day. For so long, and someone can maybe even set the record straight on when this began, but you’ve been doing this for such a long time, and that all of the young students that come through the Windsor Essex Catholic School Board come to a camp program as part of it. M aking the camp experience a boardwide activity is what I think sets you apart from so many other school boards. Why do you do it? How did it start? Give us the inception and why you kept with it and then expand landed it throughout the school. Broadly speaking, why is getting kids away to camp such an important part of the educational experience?

[00:18:08.740] – Speaker 2
Well, I’ll jump in first. I blame Paul for everything we’ve done in terms of taking students to camp. I could just briefly stated, it’s the yellow school bus story that we’ve told for many years at camp, explaining how this experience started for our school board and how it grew. I went at the time I was the present consultant for the school board, and Paul is a vice principal at a school. I happened to receive a short little five minute video from a spoke of words that was giving me a little preview of what the camp offered. I ordered enough copies for the school and our board. T here were about 50 schools at the time and only one person got back to me from those schools and that was Paul, my vice principal. He had read the brochure, he looked at the video, and he called me up and he said, Listen, this is not… This is something I think would be great for kids, an outdoor recreation experience for kids. We could do so much. He said to me, If you’re in, I’m in. I’ve got 45 grade in students. I’ve got a couple of teachers that are willing to spend three nights and four days up in the woods.

[00:19:21.420] – Speaker 2
And I’ve got a couple of parent volunteers that are helping us for supervision. So that’s how it all started back in 1994.

[00:19:29.260] – Speaker 2
Wow. Yellow school.

[00:19:29.800] – Speaker 6
Bus, 45 students.

[00:19:31.440] – Speaker 2
Bus driver, Paul and I, and a couple of parent volunteers.

[00:19:34.420] – Speaker 4
And teachers.

[00:19:36.400] – Speaker 2
To make a long story short, when we arrived up in Stokewood, we were basically said, Why did we even think of doing it.

[00:19:46.700] – Speaker 2
The longest bus ride of our life on the Yellow school bus for this six and a half hour trip. But the interesting thing is, after four nights of three days up there, all we talked about on the way home was what a wonderful experience this was for kids and how powerful it could be in the future if we continue to improve it and figure out how to make it better for the children that we serve.

[00:20:12.780] – Speaker 2
That was in 1994. We got back to our board and we couldn’t help talk about the experience. The kids were so pumped, the parents were pumped in the community. That got around to other schools.

[00:20:26.450] – Speaker 2
’94, one school, ’95, we had three schools, ’96, we had nine schools. It was just ready from the bottom up that I’m going to take both kids in some a field trip. Why don’t we make it a real educational learning experience on all levels? So Paul is the guy who made the phone call to me to get this thing all started. Without that phone call, I don’t think we’d be here talking about it today. So that’s how it started. It just grew exponentially to the point where every school in our board and our leadership students from six of our secondary schools wanted to be a part of it. So that’s the history of the experience, basically, how it started.

[00:21:14.620] – Speaker 1
Yeah. y ou mentioned that as you went, it was such a great experience for the students that you kept bringing more and more and more. What are some of the specific things that you started to see happen in the lives of students that made you say, Let’s expand this. Let’s move this out because everybody needs to experience it. Help us understand tangibly what the experience did for kids.

[00:21:41.320] – Speaker 2

[00:21:42.840] – Speaker 6
Like anything else. If.

[00:21:47.060] – Speaker 2
You don’t get…

[00:21:50.940] – Speaker 6
It takes a village thing. And if you don’t have people that have like minded views and similar.

[00:22:02.140] – Speaker 2

[00:22:04.020] – Speaker 6
It’s not going to go anywhere.

[00:22:07.900] – Speaker 6
And as Greg said, the foundation was laid, but it was a trip. And before it was a trip, it was an idea. And that was in the time of everybody was going on field trips at the end of the year. And we were getting frustrated in some of our conversations about it, that how many times are you going to go to the Iswood Park? And how many roller coasters are you going to go on and.

[00:22:40.180] – Speaker 2
On and on?

[00:22:41.560] – Speaker 6
That was repeating the same same thing. And we think to ourselves, if this is going to be, as educators, any culminating activity, if you will, from the old days of a year’s work, well, should it be something that would symbolize, in a way, the.

[00:23:08.740] – Speaker 2
Fruits of that?

[00:23:12.840] – Speaker 6
And going on a bus to a trip to Niagra Falls or wherever you’re going to, maybe I’d add merit on a certain level for certain kids who would never get that experience. But the Biscota.

[00:23:28.310] – Speaker 2

[00:23:29.670] – Speaker 6
Situation that we saw right for the first time is, Wait a minute, we have an ability to change things. You go on those end of the year field trips, you’re running around an amusement park chasing kids who are one another, etc, etc, doing all kinds of things. This we realized very quickly, something is very different and it links into that.

[00:24:00.000] – Speaker 1

[00:24:00.340] – Speaker 6
The book in its own way, the Last Child of the Woods book situation is what we were seeing with 40 kids on a yellow school bus and.

[00:24:14.600] – Speaker 4

[00:24:17.300] – Speaker 6
The number now is 40,000 that have gone through.

[00:24:22.120] – Speaker 1

[00:24:25.020] – Speaker 6
And Greg would have somebody’s got to get it. He’s got 40 respondence from kids going back 45 years.

[00:24:33.430] – Speaker 2
Paul, on that point, if you don’t mind, Paul and I and the other members of the team received countless testimonies from students and parents over all those years. But I did happen to find one in the archive before we left for this gathering. It’s a great age student, a 13 year old girl, and this stuck with me for a long time. I said, Why do we do this? She says that I have returned from camp as a more positive, empathetic, and grateful person. She says I try to use my camp experience and enhanced leadership skills to make a difference in the lives of others, in my family, in my school, and in my greater community.

[00:25:14.940] – Speaker 1

[00:25:15.360] – Speaker 2
That to me just validates the whole purpose of what we have done and what camp can thrive with kids. This is the 13 year old girl that’s stating that as something that was very important to her and to the team. This girl is talking about serving others and I’m being served. Paul and I used to have the meetings where we fought with… We didn’t fight with her, but we’d always make the statement that this experience experience, a campus experience is not about you. It’s not for you. It’s about you being a leader in your school when you come back, when you go back onto your high school, being a leader in high school. That’s the whole purpose. This is not a reward. It’s to survive in elementary school. This has a purpose so that you can come back to your communities and make them better.

[00:26:08.000] – Speaker 1
That’s amazing. I love hearing so many of those words like empathy and leadership. Like you said, it isn’t just for them individually, it’s for them to be contributors. So maybe, Brian, I’d love for you to jump in here because maybe elaborate a little bit on the leadership skills because that’s one of the unique things that the program does, too, is you bring high school students that are leaders, and then they work with the grade eight students and all that stuff. So can you talk about how taking kids away to camp can specifically help develop leadership skills? What would that look like?

[00:26:47.170] – Speaker 4
Yeah. A lot of things have been mentioned here already, and really there’s a passion that has witnessed in our magical spirit. And we talked a little bit about things.

[00:27:01.780] – Speaker 2

[00:27:03.280] – Speaker 4
Like extra curricular, that really it’s those things that are outside of the classroom that make the inside the classroom stuff work. And leadership, specifically leadership skills are broad in nature. It can be very simple, simply like Greg alluded to.

[00:27:20.980] – Speaker 2
Someone’s confidence.

[00:27:24.420] – Speaker 4
So what the camp provides and what that passion.

[00:27:28.110] – Speaker 2
For me.

[00:27:28.880] – Speaker 4
Anyway, is you give people a safe environment, yet challenging enough that we stretch them and we make them come outside of their comfort zone and make them feel comfortable being uncomfortable. I think that’s a big key and the camp provides three things space, time, and a collective focus. Space being just simply the beautiful nature setting, God’s country that we visit and we’re so fortunate to be a part of and enjoy. And then the time, the four day, three night, because there’s a certain amount of trust and communication, specifically maybe unplugged communication.

[00:28:13.860] – Speaker 2
In today’s.

[00:28:14.700] – Speaker 4
World, and camaraderie that come together that today’s youth can see, specifically today’s youth, can see that there’s more than the screen that they look at. That their peers and others around them, they can have a positive impact on the world and they can give back. And then there’s the collective focus because all the adults, not only within the school board, but the staff at Ms. C oka.

[00:28:45.640] – Speaker 2

[00:28:46.660] – Speaker 4
The students and parents themselves making themselves vulnerable and sending their children and their children accepting the challenge.

[00:28:55.660] – Speaker 2
Of going.

[00:28:56.520] – Speaker 4
And all pulling in the same direction, really creates this passion, creates this spirit that there are countless examples that we are witness to every time we go. I haven’t been going since 1994, but it’s been a while for me. I’ve been very fortunate, both Greg and Paul were mentors at nine when I started. I can remember the first time that I went to the camp, I was in my class there. Now, as one of the organizing group, and I still have the same passion, the same feeling, that magical spirit that was over me every time. So it’s just a really special place. And sometimes it’s hard to put in words, and you just have to be looking.

[00:29:47.740] – Speaker 2
For those examples, I guess.

[00:29:50.220] – Speaker 1
Yeah. I think one of the things we know, and it’s in research and it’s in our experience, is that all of us, and particularly kids, learn best from doing rather than just hearing and absorbing information. I think one of the things we’ve been talking about is we have such a desire for our kids to grow and develop specifically in this world that it takes time and space and a collective focus, like you said, to actually accomplish some of these desires and hopes that we have for young people, trying new activities, developing deeper relationships, becoming more confident in who they are. That this really provides a unique experience to do that. I want to tell just a bit of an anecdote. Brian, you talked about the space. I worked in our school’s program a number of years ago when I was in teacher’s college. I remember I had a group of young students from Brampton. And during the week, they started off really chatty and a little distracted with the activities. But by the end of the week, we were supposed to do… I can’t remember what activity it was. And a bunch of the kids said, Can we just sit on the side of the hill?

[00:31:07.780] – Speaker 1
And I was like, Okay. So we all sat there and they were all quiet. And I said, What’s going on right now? And they said, There’s nowhere in the busyness of our city for us to really sit and listen and be quiet. And there’s something really amazing about this. Can we just sit here? I always stuck with that. The noise and the busyness of their everyday life to provide the space that’s different and the time, which they don’t normally have to reflect, to think, to learn, to take a deep breath. It’s a powerful catalyst to so many of the other things that happen in normal life. I want to ask Lucas, from your perspective, what tools do you and the Muskokawood staff do to help shape this experience? What’s the strategy? What goes on behind the scenes that makes taking kids away such a significant part of their learning and development?

[00:32:10.840] – Speaker 3
Great question. I would say some of the strategy that goes into it is first and foremost creating a safe and fun place that people just want to be at. Whether that be building awesome ropes towers that people they look at and they’re excited, or it could be our crack and waterslide. People see it online and they’re obviously excited to go down as soon as they step on property. That’s first and foremost, I guess you could say. But then from there, what we do is we love to work with teachers, with leaders, with principals, with anybody to help them accomplish what are their objectives. We love to hear first hand because every community is different. They all come with their own lived experiences, scenarios, and even the atmosphere from where they come from. The whole culture and the surroundings really does matter. What what they’re trying to accomplish with their students.

[00:33:03.220] – Speaker 3
We always try and cater to that. From there, one of the biggest things that I’ve seen over my years here in Ms. Foucault Woods and particularly working with students and youth, is we love to create an environment where kids are able to grow in their confidence. One of the things about Ms. Polkwoods is that we want to inspire leaders and we want to instill in them an ability and a belief that they can make a difference in their own world. Confidence plays a huge factor in that. Whether it be some of our just programmatic approaches to things, we have something called challenge by choice, which you mentioned there, Brian, in the similar approach. When people have the opportunities to do things they’ve never done before, we challenge them to do something, but we never force them into it. When they choose to engage and set their own goal, whether it be a big goal or a small one and accomplish it, they grow in confidence. Even just trying new things. You’re certainly going to walk away more fear of yourself feeling like you can do things. We also try and really create a place that’s free for people to just be themselves.

[00:34:06.080] – Speaker 3
That goes a long way when in other environments, whether it be on sports teams or whatnot, you feel like you have to behave a certain way. I know I often felt that way growing up, being a very active, jockesque individual and always feeling like I had to be the macho guy, the tough guy, couldn’t show my emotions. At Ms. Coco Woods, we try and really allow people to feel free to be themselves, to talk about what they’re feeling, how they’re feeling, if they’re afraid that that’s totally okay. Then we just love to celebrate it when people do accomplish, whether it be their goals or just trying something new for the first time. Really, confidence is a big piece of it, I would say. It’s hard to to ignore other aspects, too, like growing in friendship, the whole time and space to just grow as people. When you’re in a cabin late at night and you’re talking about the day and you’re laughing about the funny thing that your buddy did at the dinner table, you’re just growing in friendship. And those friendships and that confidence, it all carries way beyond the experience here in the Sc ocawood.

[00:35:07.040] – Speaker 3
So those would be just some of the tactics.

[00:35:08.290] – Speaker 1
I would say. Yeah, that’s great. That last one leads into what I’ve been thinking and listening to in this conversation is this word community comes up a lot. I think that’s one of the things that when we’re thinking about our kids and how they grow up to be healthy, thriving adults, I think that’s one of the things we underestimate is the power of community. I think especially when we think about school, we often just think about, well, I hope they go and they learn and they get good grades and they get into the right university and all those sorts of things. And we might underestimate the value of community, which is deepened by kids getting involved in things outside of the classroom. Windsor guys, I’d love for any of you to speak to that because this is one of the things that I’ve noticed about your schools. Is just how important community is. And can you talk a little bit about that and how taking kids away or outside of classroom experiences builds into this sense of community for young people?

[00:36:16.680] – Speaker 2
I could jump on it.

[00:36:21.860] – Speaker 6
But community.

[00:36:23.560] – Speaker 2

[00:36:24.940] – Speaker 6
Almost by.

[00:36:25.900] – Speaker 2
Definition, is something that’s built, it doesn’t exist.

[00:36:32.600] – Speaker 6
And the Niskoca.

[00:36:34.680] – Speaker 2

[00:36:36.670] – Speaker 6
Situation, to give you a timeline and to give.

[00:36:39.620] – Speaker 2
You a sense.

[00:36:41.320] – Speaker 6
Of community, because community becomes the circle that everything is folded into. But this thing started as an idea and then it moved to an experience. And to remember way back when, we used to have this big, long title and we could barely fit on shirts with the spoken words leadership development experience.

[00:37:11.120] – Speaker 6
And that is we reflected on that, and it evolved. And the key piece of community is communities cannot be stagnant. Otherwise, they become and I don’t mean this in any race related way or anything else but they become dead.

[00:37:28.900] – Speaker 2
Unless they change.

[00:37:30.720] – Speaker 6
And they have to evolve. The evolution of that got rid of the leadership development piece because it was already there. It’s an integral part of the community. And just like the Biscoff and Woods experience. But then from an experience, as we got near the end of our tenure and what we talked about a great deal.

[00:37:55.290] – Speaker 2

[00:37:56.060] – Speaker 6
Is it became something that is far more because we found that the spiritual component was taking over, which was a really good thing. It was an unanticipated thing. But when we saw things that we knew would enhance. It goes right back to Greg’s original thing. How can we make this better? That was always the mantra, is not repeating the same thing. So it went to that. Then as that happened, something magical happened, it went from experience, at least in this area, to movement. Then there’s a whole different thing. I would defy anybody who has any willingness to break up the opportunity for a child to be part of this experience movement now to try to break that down now. You would be because it is a community initiative and the community is so big, it’s overtaken the whole board. It’s unheard of everywhere nd I’m thinking we not got the whole COVID thing. What was happening wasn’t necessarily visible, even the youth folks there, but it was growing. And the ideas, and now the irony is everybody is looking for what has always been right in front of them.

[00:39:36.420] – Speaker 1
That’s great. Greg or Brian, anything to add about community and how important it is, even in your schools?

[00:39:43.140] – Speaker 2
I just think the language of community is so positive. When we started this experience, we called them school groups. This group, that group, that group. Then the language changed the community. Community number one, community number two. Just in changing the language, we started to get a better idea of what we were trying to do in terms of building a sense of community. Six and a half hours away from home with kids from all different schools and leaders from all different schools and teachers from all different schools. How do we build community and make that work? T hat’s our Ministry. So a big part of building our communities… And it was so neat because our relationship, we spoke to it, we shared the same Ministry, basically, is getting kids in a sense of community where there’s a no fault zone, where you’re trying to do your personal best and not be the best. Where it’s all about praising each other and encouraging each other and supporting each other and enthusiasm. And we found that there was no better way to ensure skill development, to mission skills, and more importantly, to towards development, than creating a community where those things are valued and enforced.

[00:41:06.890] – Speaker 4

[00:41:07.190] – Speaker 2
That whole… Like Paul says, it was like a movement for us transitioning from the field trip mentality, because we can do more than just reward kids for surviving school during the trip. It was about, no, this is a fine time to use this time in their education as grade eight students to tell them that the real message is we’re doing this so that when we move on to high school, you can take what you’ve learned from this campus unit and make life better for others and to improve your family situations, your community situations. I love the word community. We use it a lot every time we meet with the students and the parents. There’s so much power in creating a trusted community. The empty community. We did deal with the recessed bullying and all the discipline issues when we’re up there. It is magical. Like Lucas said, there’s a magical environment, there’s a magical thing about it.

[00:42:19.340] – Speaker 4
The humble beginnings, I think, are key here because an idea was planted and it took root. Those roots have grown and are far reaching now. I like, like Paul, it’s engraved, it’s meant to feel trips, to experience the movement. Really, today it is a movement. It’s bigger than any one or group of people. And it’s taking on a life of its own, which is extremely exciting. And the idea of community, just one quick example with that, the experience. Obviously, within each individual elementary school, you strengthen your community, your culture. But the really unique part, and that is a big piece, and it is key because moving grade eight students, and when they transition to high school, they need that confidence, as was mentioned earlier, to make that transition successful so that they can be who they are going to be in life and take that next step. But one quick example in community with our secondary leaders, when they’re coming, we have a number of school. All of our schools are represented, so you could have six to eight schools, and they come come in to the experience on day one and they do a little bit of training together.

[00:43:51.720] – Speaker 4
But they are very individual. They’re school A, B, C, and D. But as the experience grows and as the days go on, at the end, the community that’s formed, so they be brief every evening. And at the beginning, you can see each school is in their separate corner with their own individual students. And by the end, they are one big.

[00:44:19.700] – Speaker 2

[00:44:21.470] – Speaker 4
Sharing. And we have stories where there wasn’t friendship, there is friendship after the experience. So they bring that connection back home with them. And they just see each other as people with a common goal to try and serve others and make the world a better place. And it is an extremely moving. And even as I’m sharing it now, I get goosebumps thinking about that at that time. And it is such.

[00:44:48.280] – Speaker 2
A powerful.

[00:44:48.960] – Speaker 4
Piece of the experience. Yeah.

[00:44:53.160] – Speaker 1
It’s so encouraging to hear us talking about an experience that does so much in the participation kids lives. Builds confidence, gives kids a chance to try new things, build deeper relationships, develop empathy, create a sense of community and belonging, and develop leadership skills. But for a second, I just want to go off script. I know we probably have some teachers who are listening to this and hopefully thinking about taking kids away and saying, How could I do something like this, whether it’s at Muskoku Woods or anywhere else, to get the kids out of the classroom to learn and to grow. And I would just say, and again, the Windsor guys and Lucas, I’m sure you would echo this, to say it’s actually great for the teachers as well. I think there’s something that as educators, as leaders, as adults, that we need the space and time and collective focus to reinvigorate us in what we’re called to do and how we lead young people. I just know for me, the more I’m involved in actually being a part of things like this, the more I am inspired by what I see in the lives of young people.

[00:46:09.240] – Speaker 1
Because it’s easy in a classroom setting or as I pass kids in the neighborhood to make up my assumption of what young kids are like today and have a whole bunch of conceptions and ideas. But it’s when we actually are part of something like this and you see kids overcome some fears and develop things like empathy and put their hand up and volunteer to do things that you wouldn’t normally see them do and sing songs and do chants and get involved. And you’re looking at that student, you’re like, I I haven’t even seen them say boo in the classroom, and now they’re this whole different kid. What that does to inspire us to be better champions and leaders of the young people that are in our world. It’s easy to talk about the benefits for the students and what it does in their lives. But I know I’ve listened to Paul, Brian, Greg enough, and I’m not… Well, I am speaking for them, but I know it’s done a lot in their lives and it’s done a lot of my life. And so for any teachers listening who think it’s just a pain in the butt to take kids away, don’t underestimate what it’ll do for your own energy and your own vision for the kids that you’re called to lead.

[00:47:27.520] – Speaker 1
I think that’s something I just wanted to add into the conversation. With five of us chatting, we’ve gone into a pretty long conversation, a deep conversation about these things. I’d love to finish with one question. Feel free for anybody to answer it. Lucas, I might ask you to answer it at the end. But here’s the thing. The generation of kids that are growing up today are much different than 1994 when we started this program and it got going. And so I just love a snapshot right now of what are we seeing in the lives of young people? And why should an experience like camp, how does that really help this generation of young people? Very specifically, what are we seeing in the lives of young people and how might camp be a real positive thing for the kids today?

[00:48:26.620] – Speaker 6
So the easy one to jump into, we’re in a biggest educational and health crisis in any of our lifetimes. And it’s student mental health.

[00:48:42.860] – Speaker 2
And the single, and.

[00:48:46.040] – Speaker 6
I would debate anybody anytime, the single best way to begin to effect change is through these types of outdoor immersive education where all are equal in that property. They’re all multimillionaires no matter where they came from and no matter what clothes they wear. They’re sleeping in the same places. They are learning things. We’re, as teachers, and it was alluded to in some of the things that everybody said a little bit.

[00:49:23.800] – Speaker 2
You will get.

[00:49:25.440] – Speaker 6
In an environment like the scope of the Woods. Greg and I were talking about this yesterday as a matter of fact, when we see the person in charge, hopefully not sooner, but ultimately.

[00:49:41.140] – Speaker 2
We wonder.

[00:49:42.880] – Speaker 6
And I really want to know, how many suicides.

[00:49:46.420] – Speaker 2
Did we commit with 40,000 kids?

[00:49:49.740] – Speaker 6
And there’s some that we know. So we also know that you want a way to effect.

[00:49:59.300] – Speaker 2

[00:50:00.170] – Speaker 6
Here. It isn’t about student achievement scores. That may really upset. And where something is going to have to happen here in order to address this crisis is you’re going to have to also have to get to the administrative hierarchy because it ain’t the same as when we grew up and as when we came through this. We’re so focused on measurable outcomes. The biggest measurable outcome is survival in life and being healthy.

[00:50:38.120] – Speaker 2
And happy.

[00:50:39.400] – Speaker 6
Both physically and mentally. Find me something that is more important than that, and find me a better way of.

[00:50:47.060] – Speaker 2
Putting a.

[00:50:48.600] – Speaker 6
Base for that than a camp experience. That’s why it’s good.

[00:50:52.880] – Speaker 2
I agree with Paul. Another big issue, and I think it really names to the students mental health. It’s the addiction to social media, not just for our youth, but also to us as adults. We have to figure out how to deal with that addiction. We didn’t have to deal with this in 1994 and we’re seeing forward. But we have to deal with it now because I think our addiction to social media has a great impact on our mental health. And until we can get a handle on how we deal and how we move about this social media world. It’s a dangerous weapon that we have to deal with.

[00:51:38.900] – Speaker 2
It causes a lot of lack of focus in our lives and a lot of misdirection. I think that’s happening to our youth. So somehow we have to get a handle on how do we deal with this addiction to social media.

[00:51:54.180] – Speaker 4
I just want to piggyback off both Greg and Paul. Paul started off very eloquently and it is a crisis. Greg mentioned the social media piece and there’s equity, accessibility. Our young people today are being exposed to more and more things that they can’t process. It’s not the right time for them, but yet they’re forced into it because social media, which is leading to mental health crisis. Really, the strength of the Moscow experience, the Moscow movement is the more things change, the more they stay the same there. And I think you mentioned it, Chris, about just sitting in silence.

[00:52:44.440] – Speaker 2

[00:52:45.000] – Speaker 6

[00:52:45.800] – Speaker 4
So much power in that because at the end of the day, everyone has a place in life somewhere. And as educators, we need to make them feel comfortable with the place that they’re going to in life. And test scores and things, okay, but that is not the measure of the reality of life. And so we have to focus on the value of people as a person. And we talked about community, we talked about culture and relationships. And those are the things that make a difference. And encouraging educators to take people outside of the classroom will pay dividends over and over again inside the classroom and will help people find their way.

[00:53:41.700] – Speaker 2
In life.

[00:53:43.460] – Speaker 1
Lucas, any thought?

[00:53:45.150] – Speaker 3
Yeah, that’s so good what you guys are saying there. Even just to continue that vein of thought, what I’ve observed is that as kids come up over the years coming up to camp, they are more interested in just the more relational aspects of camp. Back in the day, they loved coming and doing the big, exciting action stuff, the activities. Now I’m finding they really do want to talk more about their feelings and their thoughts. Maybe they don’t always want to in schools because, like you said, social media covers up and they feel like they have to put on a certain image. But when you’re here at camp, there’s a rawness to it. You can see a photo of Lake Rosso on your Instagram, but to stand on the shore is a whole different experience. That’s why I love the clear, starry nights here in Ms. Cocoa Woods. You can’t replicate that in too many other places. It creates a sense of awe and it provokes conversation. That’s what I’ve really enjoyed even in seeing the change in kids. I know that we do have a mental health crisis on our hands. But if it has caused any good, it is that people are more interested in talking about how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, how they’re processing things.

[00:54:54.580] – Speaker 3
And camp seems to be a really good platform for it. I’ve really observed that. And to what you were saying there at the very start, Paul, like Muskoka Woods, and even just getting away, being in the outdoors and going on these trips, I have observed firsthand time and time again, if there is anywhere that an experience or even a movement can make it a difference in the kid’s lives nowadays. It seems to be this a stuff because when I watch your grade 12 leaders waving and cheering and greeting the grade 8s as they arrive on the bus and then the same thing as they’re leaving, I think back to when I was a teenager, and I think I was never interested in doing that. I just think about the power that it has to bring a community together, to change perspectives, to have an effect that is so positive beyond all the constraints of social of media and mental health that happens right now.

[00:55:48.440] – Speaker 1
Yeah. So if you’re listening to this podcast, you’re probably doing so because you care about young people and kids today. And if you are a parent who is thinking about whether you should send your kids away to the school trip that’s coming up, or if you’re a parent who goes, Wait, how come my school doesn’t do this? Or if you are a teacher who’s sitting there thinking, Oh, man, I’m not too sure if this is the thing we should be doing. I hope today’s conversation has been encouraging for all of us as we look at what’s going on in the lives of our young people today as we watch kids seemingly struggle their way through right now and to maybe hear about something that can be a catalyst, can be an exciting and life giving opportunity. I know sometimes it’s easy to sit in our houses and look at a permission form and look at the cost of it or whatever and say, oh, man, that doesn’t seem like it’d be valuable. But I hope today’s been encouragement that there are things outside of the normal everyday things that we do that can be a huge advantage in the lives of young people and can provide the environment for so much growth and development and health to come forward nd so thanks for the conversation today, everyone.

[00:57:18.500] – Speaker 1
Windsor, guys, appreciate you and all you’ve put into over the years. Excited to see that schools are back at Muskoka Woods. And Brian, as we were talking just before we got going, excited that the fall trip went well and looking forward to another spring coming up and an ongoing 20… We’re coming up on 20…

[00:57:41.850] – Speaker 2
20, 30, 30 next year.

[00:57:43.840] – Speaker 1
30 years now of partnership. So we’ll have to get you retired guys back up for the 30 year celebration. But thank you all for all you do and all you continue to do in the lives of young people as you mentor and as you lead and equip the next generation of leaders with young people. And thank you all, all four of you for the conversation today. It’s been great and inspiring for me to be reminded of all the things that we’re able to do at Ms. Cocoa Woods in the lives of young people. So thanks for your time today. Thank you.

[00:58:21.430] – Speaker 4
Thanks for having us. Thank you, Chris.

About the Author

Chris Tompkins is the CEO of Muskoka Woods. He holds a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Guelph, a teacher’s college degree from the University of Toronto and a Master’s degree in Youth Development from Clemson University. His experience leading in local community, school, church and camp settings has spanned over 20 years. His current role and expertise generates a demand for him to speak with teens and consult with youth leaders. Chris hosts the Muskoka Woods podcast, Shaping Our World where he speaks with youth development experts. He is an avid sports fan who enjoys an afternoon with a big cup of coffee and a good book. Chris resides in Stouffville, Ontario with his wife and daughter.
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