Campground near Drayton Valley providing work opportunities for vulnerable people

·4 min read
Following a profitable camping season in 2020, Elevated Experience Camping Society bought a food trailer to create a new program called Operation Sasquatch. Sasquatch Hideaway Mobile Kitchen will offer a variety of sandwiches, hot dogs, corn and desserts.  (Submitted by Elevated Experience Camping - image credit)
Following a profitable camping season in 2020, Elevated Experience Camping Society bought a food trailer to create a new program called Operation Sasquatch. Sasquatch Hideaway Mobile Kitchen will offer a variety of sandwiches, hot dogs, corn and desserts. (Submitted by Elevated Experience Camping - image credit)

Social work and camping seem like a strange combination until you meet Carmen Roberts-Kowalchuk.

In January 2020, the 45-year-old and her husband Jason began leasing Willey West Campground in Eagle Point Provincial Park. The park is on the North Saskatchewan River, six kilometres east of Drayton Valley.

A former social worker, Roberts-Kowalchuk didn't want to abandon her previous career.

"My vision was, if I was going to go in on this venture with my husband, I still wanted to be able to support vulnerable individuals in different capacities,"she told CBC News on Wednesday.

"So we created not only the profit side, but we also created a non-profit society as well."

The Elevated Experience Camping Society set out to accomplish one main goal.

"How do we marry this tourism industry and show people how you can still support vulnerable individuals through employment practices?"

Roberts-Kowalchuk partnered with Beehive Support Services, which helps individuals with disabilities find employment and independence.

"In the campground there's very few things I have that have a finite deadline for something to be done. We thought what a great way to help people with disabilities have an employment opportunity," she said.

It also provided a chance to educate others — "to really support our campers and my other staff to understand what it's like to be in an inclusive employment environment," Roberts-Kowalchuk said. Eight people signed up last year.

Carmen and Jason Roberts-Kowalchuk launched Operation Sasquatch at the beginning of March.
Carmen and Jason Roberts-Kowalchuk launched Operation Sasquatch at the beginning of March.(Submitted by Carmen Roberts-Kowalchuk)

This year they're expanding to 13 people with disabilities. Following a profitable camping season in 2020, they decided to buy a food trailer and create a new program called Operation Sasquatch, which is an employment program for at-risk youth aged 14 to 20. It launched March 1.

"For two months, after school, Monday to Friday, four to eight, they do classroom work in a commercial kitchen," Roberts-Kowalchuk said.

The 10 teenagers enrolled aren't just learning culinary skills, they're taught life skills as well.

"We're really trying to do a full spectrum," she said. Alberta Health Services is teaching about nutrition, TD Bank is talking about banking and investments as a young person, and Money Mentors is providing consumer education, she said.

Students also get to learn from guest speakers from Drayton Valley businesses.

Jason Roberts-Kowalchuk has taken on the role of mentor for the teens.

"I've had some troubles myself," he said, "and I thought, 'How better to give back to a great community and give a piece of myself? I kind of feel like I owe life, so why not take a chance on these kids."

That's something 17-year-old participant Mickayla Jensen certainly appreciates.

"I think it's amazing that they are helping other people succeed." she said. "They're reaching out and supporting the community, people with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations."

Jensen has struggled with math and finding employment but is confident the program will make a difference.

"It really attracted me and I thought it would be a really good idea since I've had some employment issues and had some trouble getting hired," she said.

"It's nice having the culinary and money-management experience that I'm learning every day."

Ten youths are in the program. Pictured: Colton Toth, Bryden Lathan, Zantelle Zelmer, Kathryn Meade, Zander Hodge, Mickayla Jenson, Nicholas Arnold and Zachery Fancey.
Ten youths are in the program. Pictured: Colton Toth, Bryden Lathan, Zantelle Zelmer, Kathryn Meade, Zander Hodge, Mickayla Jenson, Nicholas Arnold and Zachery Fancey.(Submitted by Carmen Roberts-Kowalchuk)

The classroom instruction continues until the end of April when the students will take the next step and open the Sasquatch Hideaway Mobile Kitchen, which will offer a variety of sandwiches, hot dogs, corn and desserts.

"As of April 30, the food trailer goes live and so they will be paid as regular employees at that point," Carmen Roberts-Kowalchuk said.

She hopes the programs will be noticed by others in the community.

"I'm trying to help the town of Drayton Valley realize how important it is to give people in vulnerable sectors a chance," she said. "Our long-term goal is to trademark it and then be able to show other organizations how to do it."

They plan to buy more campgrounds and open more food trucks in the coming years using the same concept.