It looks like a festival. But serious 'wellness' work is happening at this summer camp

·5 min read
Children crowd in to get their photo taken at the EthioCare summer camp. (Elise Stolte/CBC - image credit)
Children crowd in to get their photo taken at the EthioCare summer camp. (Elise Stolte/CBC - image credit)

The free summer camp looked more like a festival, with grinning, screaming kids packed under a tent and dancing to Hotline Bling.

Their mothers looked just as content — reconnecting in the shade on a recent Thursday as they roasted beans for a traditional Ethiopian/Eritrean coffee ceremony and shared kitfo and ayib, traditional foods.

This is mental health therapy done a new way, says Bekele Hankebo, head of EthioCare, a small, mental health-focused non-profit. It's focused on "family wellness" more than the medical concept of mental health, with the goal of creating social spaces that foster joy and trust.

And it's finally paying off, he says.

"We need this. It really helps the family, and even for the kids," said Selam Gebremichael, whose children are nine and seven.

"Even the mothers were effected so much," added her friend Rahen Ghebergher. "They have coffee ceremony, lunch. The mothers enjoy it more than the kids, and this actually helps. I met so many people. I didn't know we had this big community."

Elise Stolte/CBC
Elise Stolte/CBC

The camp runs five days a week at Calgary Rotary Challenger Park. It's partly volunteer-run, with enough federal funding to cover the cost of using the city park.

Up to 300 kids each day play sports, hold water fights, share their culture and learn about mental health, while parents work or drop in to focus on their own recovery.

It's just one part of the strategy for EthioCare.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused isolation and anxiety for many, including in the Ethiopian/Eritrean community. Hankebo says this added to the trauma many newcomer families previously experienced from war and life in refugee camps.

Once they trust you then they can be open. - Bekele Hankebo

That's made more difficult because some mothers don't speak English well, and rarely leave their homes except for their children's school. Plus, says Hankebo, some have a cultural stigma around the idea of mental illness and don't accept that medical or physiological treatment might be required. Some people believe a priest's blessing is better.

That's why EthioCare was created, said Hankebo, a former World Vision employee who spent time in a refugee camp himself in the 1980s. EthioCare started before the pandemic, pivoted to emergency support in 2020, then added mental health webinars to start deeper conversations.

Success came slowly

But it was slow going. They didn't see real change until they brought in an outside psychologist. Finally, mothers started to open up.

"For the last two years, we organized Zoom meetings, 18 sessions just around mental health. But it's only in the last two or three sessions that we finally had a breakthrough," said Hankebo.

"Just them accepting that it is mental health. Saying yes, we need help. About five people approached us that they need help, they want a reference."

"(The new psychologist) does not belong to the community. She does not know our family members. She's an outsider," he said. "We learned something new there. Trust and confidentiality. Once they trust you, then they can be open."

Elise Stolte/CBC
Elise Stolte/CBC

As for the summer camp, Hankebo says that was the mothers' idea. They asked him to organize it last year, and repeat it this year because it brought such profound change.

At a picnic table near the dancing kids, a group of mothers shared their own stories to explain how.

Summer camp reduces stress, anxiety

"When we started, the kids were not like this," said Meseret Tesfay, who helped organize the camp. "They were more shy, they were quiet. But they now built up friendships."

"For me as a parent, my kid was so shy. She would rather stay in the house. Even shopping was very hard for me. I had to beg my children, I have to bribe.

"They started gaining weight because of sitting down in the house. That was stressing me. But now, with this camp, everybody is getting into shape. Even myself, I shed six kilos," said Tesfay, with a laugh. "I'm serious."

The women said that during the pandemic, many kids stayed too long on their screens. They became quiet, or started acting out, and there was miscommunication and arguments between parents and children. But this camp lets kids get their stress out, and they talk more when they're home as well.

Elise Stolte/CBC
Elise Stolte/CBC

"They were staying almost six, seven hours in YouTube and this crazy TikTok. Just slide and nothing, slide — watching," said Senait Kidane. "This is the best place to keep them out of the cellphone."

"My child was more aggressive, fighting with other kids," added Ghebergher. "But summer camp, coming here and being with more kids, getting some time outside. He's learning more. He's becoming calm. He'll finish all his energy here."

"I'm living in Signal Hill," she said. "It's very far [to drive], but I'm so happy I'm coming to summer camp. Gas is expensive. It's OK. The happiness is more than the money I spend on the gas."

"Now they have something to share with us. There's more closeness now, instead of, 'Mama, it's so boring. I don't have anything to do," said Tesfay.

Plus, making social connections and knowing friends will be there to help creates a confidence that spills over into many areas of life.

Tesfay's advice for any parent?

"Come out more and express the situation you're in. I feel like my home is [similar to] every home. By coming out and talking, we'll find more solutions."

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