Just like most Filipinos, my husband and I have never been to summer camp. So when we realized that our Vancouver vacation coincided with a Filipino youth camp, we spent two days at Loon Lake.
We soon realized that KAMP was not just a summer camp— it was a social movement.
In 2008, KAMP (Kababayan Academic Mentorship Program) started out with Filipino-Canadian youth having weekly meetings with Kababayan UBC (the Filipino Students Association at the University of British Columbia). With the help of Joy Jose, Multicultural Liaison Worker with the Vancouver School Board, the teens benefited from tutoring and mentorship sessions.
But when community member Marissa Peña remembered how her own daughters had thrived in the summer YMCA camps, she spoke to Jose.
“Joy said that some of these students haven’t even seen North Vancouver or Stanley Park,” said Peña. “So we brought the idea of a summer camp to Maureen, Rene, and Michael. We need to form leaders among the youth - and we need to form leaders who know where they come from, and where they're going.”
Mendoza’s involvement with Philip Kelly’s Filipino Youth Transitions in Canada project opened up even more ideas for the program.
“FYTIC inspired me to further pay attention to both intergenerational conflict and opportunities for connections, as well as the systemic connections and reproductions of migration inequities our community faces on all levels, but particularly education trajectories and outcomes,” she said.
It was important for Mendoza that KAMP would be a place for all generations of Filipinos to connect. “FYTIC also emphasized for us the importance of cultural identity for both newly arrived, 1.5 and 2nd gen, and points of connection where learning across difference and sameness can happen in the context of a structured KAMP environment.”
For its second year, Mendoza was able to raise $14,600 for KAMP. “The funding was a real community effort,” she said. “Crowd-sourced fundraising, an acoustic night, and the Assumption Alumni Association came together so that students could experience this for free.”
And while many might think that summer camp consisted of showering in a lake and sleeping in a tent, KAMP was much more than this.
Deep in the heart of UBC’s Malcolm Knapp Research Forest, KAMP was in the cosy Loon Lake Retreat complex on the edge of a private lake. When we arrived, the mentors and mentees were eating a catered meal in a gorgeous dining hall.
KAMP’s newcomer mentees were bursting with stories to share. From rock-climbing to high ropes to fitness bootcamp to voluntarily waking up at 5:30am to play basketball, the physical activities made many realize how often they were on “auto-pilot” in their new homes.
There were 23 mentees ranging in age from 13-19, and while some had been in Canada for years, others had arrived only a few months before.
Mark Orayen had arrived in Canada in May, and he found that canoeing was a metaphor for succeeding in his new Canadian life.
“At first, Kuya Rene and I weren’t able to make a left or a right— we weren’t in sync yet,” he said. “But as we paddled back, we were the first ones back to the dock.”
“While canoeing, I realized that we should meet our challenges because this could be our foundation to face future hurdles. It was so fulfilling because oh my God, I challenged myself.”
KAMP was not only physically challenging, but mentally challenging, as well. The many workshops included Jaisa Sulit speaking about mindfulness, Francis Arevalo’s presentation on mental health and spoken word, and Carlo Sayo’s session on visual thinking and communication.
Mentee Thea Melodias said that the workshops inspired her to look beyond the present.
“It’s like KAMP was cleaning a dirty window to let us see a better perspective, to help us plan our future,” she said. “It gave us a starting point to push our boundaries and limitations to see what’s out there.”
McGill PhD Social Work student Monica Batac conducted KAMP’s first workshop, and was surprised at how many students were so open about their feelings.
“I hadn't expected them to cry,” Batac said. “I asked them to close their eyes and picture walking into a family member's house, and to imagine what food they were smelling. That was enough to make some of them emotional."
Sulit added, “Some of the kids said that they haven’t cried since the last time they were at KAMP. It’s so great that this place gives them the space to do that.”
The vulnerability that the youth displayed allowed for deep connections.
“Last year, I was a mentee, but this year, I’m a mentor,” said M-jay Frias. “It’s totally different. I can’t just think of myself. I have to think of everyone else and be an older brother to all of the youth. Now they think of me as everyone’s kuya.”
In the closing workshop, Batac led the students through an exercise called “Touch Somebody.” Everyone sat in a circle with their eyes closed, and Batac selected individuals to stand in the middle. “Touch someone who is able to accomplish anything,” she said. “Touch someone who has given you good advice… Touch someone who made an impact on your life.”
The students touched the shoulders of their peers, and soon, the sound of sniffles filled the room.
At the end of the exercise, Batac asked, “How do you feel?” And after the initial nervous laughter at everyone seeing each other with red eyes, the group responded with powerful words: “Thankful,” “Important,” “Respected,” Noticed,” “Loved.”
Mentee Joy Siscar was especially touched. After being in Canada for only a year and a half, she felt lonely without her extended family.
“I thought that coming to Canada, my family would only be just us six,” she said. “But KAMP taught me that family doesn’t have to be blood-related, but it can be the people who support you. I never expected people to appreciate the small things that I do.”
And the newfound connections inspired mentor Sol Diana to perform an original poem. “i see my ancestors / and i have so much to tell them / like look where we are! / look what we've done to get here / look what we've done to honour your legacy / you fought for this / you fought for me and for that i'm grateful / i'm grateful / for the home that i've found.”
Batac hopes that KAMP could be replicated in Toronto. She brought Toronto newcomer Gino Amboang with her to participate as a mentee.
“I’ve been committed to building capacity within our community to strengthen the settlement and youth-serving sectors,” she said.
“Gino has shown great interest to help revive Kababayan Multicultural Centre’s youth summer camp, a program which has been halted for the past few years. I wanted him to experience KAMP first-hand, meet the other youth leaders who run this program, with hopes that it inspires him to share this knowledge to his peers in Toronto.”
“I hope that KMC’s Youth Leaders, the Filipino student associations across the Toronto universities, and other interested Filipino youth, will come together to organize an annual summer camp for Filipino youth in the GTA,” said Batac.
“It has been done before in the past, through KMC, and now it’s time for Filipino youth to lead this work. Using KAMP and Hawaii’s Sariling Gawa as models, what might this look like for us here in Ontario?”
This article was originally published in The Philippine Reporter on August 24, 2017.