Camp Tillicum’s future is rooted in its past

·11 min read

CALLANDER – Camp Tillicum will be even more important for kids from North Bay and surrounding communities next summer after a weary winter of pandemic isolation, screen time, and stress.

The old recreation hall, which has signatures of former counsellors and campers painted on the wall and ceiling boards dating back almost seven decades, is scheduled to be torn down this spring and replaced with a brand new building.

But a COVID-19-related spike in material and construction costs – mixed with stark fundraising realities – is cause for pause regarding the Redpath Youth Centre and camp renewal project.

“Raising funds in a time of COVID is increasingly difficult,” said Bob Cunningham, president of the Camp Tillicum board of directors. “Many organizations who wouldn't ordinarily be looking to the public for funding and support are doing so. And those who always look to the public … are also doing so because they have extra needs over and above what they normally looked at before.”

A ground-breaking ceremony for replacing the old recreation centre was held last fall. All the partners and supporters thought $1.2-million in donations and pledges was close enough to the finish line. They initially costed a building like the Osprey Golf Course Club House, plus a laundry list of other camp improvements, at about $1.3-million.

Cunningham, a North Bay Rotarian, is in his third year heading the camp board, said higher material prices are making their outlook uncertain as well.

“If the world of COVID stops spoiling the construction material (pricing) like it has been doing lately, then I think we'll be able to get a really solid estimate from a solid contractor and we'll have a much better idea of how much more money we need,” he said. “And if it's only a little bit, for example, I think it would be much, much better to jump in with both feet and start the thing. If it's more than a little bit, then we have to carefully assess it.”

Those two issues, combined, are forcing the partners to be cautious.

“So, we're feeling that and have not gone forward very much, certainly since the start of the epidemic,” Cunningham said, adding that the positive outcomes of the camp and the potential for even more gives them firm resolve.

Rotary’s beachfront paradise on Callander’s South Shore of Lake Nipissing enriches more than 800 young lives annually, most through day-camp programs run by the North Bay YMCA. It’s especially important to underprivileged children with one in four campers subsidized by the Strong Kids charity program.

And there’s plenty more potential for the 77-acre property within view on a clear day of the city waterfront while still a world of nature away. It was dearly missed this year when the day-camp program was shelved for safety-sake.

“It's a great project. We've got a great partner in the YMCA. They're going through their own difficulties, but we're still working with them,” Cunningham said.

Nicole Beattie, vice president of Philanthropy, Marketing and Communications for the YMCA of Northeastern Ontario, is meeting with Cunningham and others to strategize about how to move forward.

“We've had a very long term relationship with the Rotary Club of North Bay,” Beattie said, adding she’s a North Bay Rotarian as well. “It's so nice to see that there's such a beautiful property where our kids from the YMCA can go …The Y would not be able to run a camp program like the one that we do out at Tillicum without Rotary support of the property.

“So it's a relationship, we really work well together and I think we complement one another’s services. And certainly, that's a long term relationship that the YMCA is very interested in making sure goes forward for many years to come,” she said.

Beattie said everybody involved sees the dividends paid when both financial and volunteer investments are put into Camp Tillicum for children.

“The last couple of years, the Y has actually decided to offer more enhanced programming at camp because it is just such a wonderfully unique property,” she said. “And having the waterfront there, we've actually started teaching swimming lessons. So kids who come out to Camp Tillicum actually learn how to swim. So not just recreational swim, but they're getting lessons and survival skills.

“We've cleaned up the kayaking and canoeing area in partnership with Rotary. So kids are getting out on boats and learning paddling skills and there's just a lot of outdoor programming for them to do,” Beattie explained.

“And it's certainly been really rewarding. We've seen from the campers, on the family standpoint, especially now with technology, kids really do unplug and they're not allowed to bring devices to camp,” she added, highlighting how it’s more important than ever with participants not having the opportunity this summer.

“And I think that with COVID, now having to do homeschooling, there's really that virtual fatigue that's setting in. I really feel that next summer will be so important to get those kids out back into nature by the waterfront in northern Ontario.”

Spencer Merritt, a 15-year Rotarian who has a summer cottage on adjacent property, serves as the caretaker and says there’s no better sound in the world than kids enjoying themselves at Camp Tillicum.

“This property is a jewel, I think it’s a gift,” he said, “I think it’s an investment in youth … and the success of this camp is in the youth.”

Merritt said they get a chance to swim in the outdoors, learn to canoe and kayak and learn skills they wouldn’t otherwise be picked up if they don’t have a place like this.

“It’s just a joy to see,” he said, explaining how he’s retired and getting old and generally doesn’t like noise but “I’ll never object to the noise of the kids having fun during the day.”

Merritt added that the historic mandate of the camp is the same as it was when the property was initially “gifted” to Rotary back in the 1940s.

He suggested speaking to Nestor Prisco, a long-time Rotarian who is considered the club historian after decades as secretary.

BayToday interview Prisco, 83, over the telephone.

Here are some of the excerpts of the conversation, kicked off with a little bit of the recreation hall that will be torn down:

“That was the main hall at one time, (built by Olmsted Construction, probably in the 1950s.) That was the centre of activity for the camp,” Prisco said, noting the history of the club and camp started soon after the First World War. “It all started out with tents.”

Helping kids who needed it was always the goal and it began without a camp to use, he said.

“The Rotary Club was formed in 1923 and their main role or main project … started with crippled children in 1926 … they used to have clinics for crippled children with a doctor by the name of Harris. He was a famous doctor. His father or brother had Harris Drugstore on the main street,” Prisco said.

“He lived in North Bay for a while. Harris was a great guy. He ran the clinic with another doctor by the name of Duncan Campbell. They had both been in the war together and had a lot of experience because, you know, when you're in the war, as a surgeon, you're operating on all kinds of people saving some, maybe not others. And so you get a lot of experience.

“And then they got into a camp, you know, camping for kids … I think it was 1932 in August. They took about 30 kids out there from the ages of 12 to 15 for a camping experience that lasted less than 12 days.

“They had hired a couple of people to be in charge and to look after things and operate the activities with volleyball, softball, horseshoes, nature study, all that kind of stuff. And of course, swimming was a big thing.

“The Rotarians themselves would select the kids that would want to go out there. And some of them are kids that wouldn't normally have a summer experience at a camp,” he said, adding it was fairly rustic to begin. “It was all under canvas.”

The Rotarians transported the boys to the camp, and they visited them “and I think they would probably hold one of their Monday night meetings up there,” Prisco recalled from the old minutes and articles he’s read.

“So that's the way it really got started. And you'll see the way the commemorative plaque goes. They're recognizing James Nightingale (a North Bay merchant) and Thomas Palmer (of Palmer Jewelry near the CIBC).

“It's just an amazing story. And looking after people in the Depression, you know, this is hard times and yet they're still doing that,” he said. “And I guess, originally, what they did was they had to go there by boat.”

Prisco said the modern version of the camp began in earnest after the Second World War.

“The Camp Tillicum Club was formed in 1949 after the Palmers and Nightingales gifted the property to Rotary.

“They were going to give it to the Trinity Church, but they thought that maybe it would be better, to be better organized and to maintain it, if they gave it to the Rotary Club.

“And of course service clubs couldn't own property. So, they had to form the Camp Tillicum Incorporated Ontario Company owned by shareholders and members of the Rotary Club,

“They invested a lot of money out there and the Rotarians themselves, went out there and did a lot of work,” he said, recalling how one member, as an example, had an aggregate business in Widdifield and he’s drop off materials

“They were so committed. I mean, this was their sort of vocation to try to look after them,” he said, noting there have been several major partners that contributed to Camp Tillicum as the Rotary Club shared the workload with various groups.

“So I think in 1978, it was getting to be a bit of a burden. Lifestyles were changing. People were more occupied. And the directors leased the camp to the Department of National Defense for army and sea cadets.

“And so they had it for some time and they did a fair amount of infrastructure work there and had some money. And they pulled out after, I'm going to say, 10 years. And then we got the YMCA to run the summer camp, which is really worked out very well,” Prisco said, noting the primary mandate has remained regardless of who has been involved.

“It makes so many great memories for those kids. If you look at that ceiling and you see all those names and you recognize a few of them, it's amazing what's happened,” he said, proud to add they’ve kept their promise all these years despite the temptation to get out of it.

“The nice thing about this is that when Nightingale and Palmer gifted the property, they stipulated that it was to be used for that purpose in perpetuity, even if it was sold to someone else,” he said.

“The club was going to sell it at one time, oh, I guess about 20 years ago or so. I guess a few of us raised their voices. It didn't happen. And we have this property in trust and we have an obligation that we signed up for. “

Prisco said they’ve lost a lot of members over the years as the priorities of people changed but he still has hope.

“It’s harder to get members for service clubs today. I mean, I was secretary of the club for 30 years, 31 years. I'm going to 1985-86, we had 146 members and it's down to about 60 members,” he said, adding he joined in 1969. “You know, everything is more difficult these days. And as I said, lifestyles have changed. You know, men and women are both working. They've got young kids. People don't have the time. Even though we're down to maybe about 60 people, there are still some really strong members. I would say the majority are really strong. So that's very encouraging.”

Cunningham said he’s optimistic everything will work out, partly because of the strong history and people knowing it’s more important than ever to help kids expand their horizons.

“We have a good plan. We have experts who can help us get this done in a professional way at a minimal cost in terms of overhead and so on,” he said. "And we still are looking for other sources of revenue, aside from the standard sort of people who can contribute to a worthy cause with a significant amount of money,” he said.

“So I remain optimistic about it.”

Dave Dale, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, BayToday.ca