Running a summer camp, like most things that require face-to-face interaction, is a complicated task with the backdrop of a global pandemic.
But a Toronto children’s mental health agency unlocked a new way to run its camp, usually based out of Haliburton, virtually in 2020. The camp is returning for another virtual instalment this summer, and organizers are planning to make part of that online camp experience permanent.
The permanent expansion to Camp Towhee is only one piece of a larger puzzle at the Child Development Institute, an agency more than 100 years old that provides mental health care for 3,000 families and their children across the GTA. It could lead to a virtual expansion well beyond the pandemic to its services through a partnership announced Wednesday with global technology company Cisco.
The institute’s CEO, Dr. Lynn Ryan MacKenzie, said some feedback from families forced to transition to virtual care suggests that, in some cases, online care has been a better option for both parents and children, as well as clinicians working with them.
Most mental health care providers were forced to move their services online early in the pandemic — unfamiliar territory for many. Mental health care has since been deemed an essential service by Ontario, and some have reverted to partially offering in-person care. But a few people prefer connecting online, Ryan MacKenzie said, some for safety reasons, others for the flexibility it provides.
At the institute, 43 per cent of sessions were still being offered virtually as of late 2020, and Ryan MacKenzie expects some of that to continue after COVID-19.
“We’re still in the early days of this, but we’re finding very good outcomes,” Ryan MacKenzie said.
With Camp Towhee, a program specifically for children 10 to 18 with mental health issues and learning disabilities, camp director Trish McKeough sought creative ways last July to still offer that experience to children, albeit virtually.
“We knew when we had to cancel that, ‘Oh gosh, our kids need this more than ever, how do we even do this?’ ” McKeough said.
What emerged was the use of a secure virtual platform called Webex, created by Cisco, to run camp activities online. Children were divided into groups based on the cabins they would have been assigned for real-life camp, McKeough said. Activities included playing Dungeons and Dragons virtually, with the platform allowing them to draw maps and share them with their cabin mates online.
McKeough said the online camp was very successful, and led to the creation of weekly virtual sessions where campers could reconnect. Seeing the benefits for the kids, Ryan MacKenzie said the intention is to continue these sessions beyond COVID-19 as an adjacent part of real-life camp.
“Kids want to go back to camp and canoe, and sleep under the stars — all the things that you need to do in person,” Ryan MacKenzie said. “But the things that we’ve been able to do in terms of having year-round follow-up, it’s something that would add to that in-person experience.”
One advantage noticed with virtual camp, McKeough said, is the unique opportunity it provided for children to share parts of themselves with others. Instead of telling their friends about their home life or pets, for example, they could show them through video.
“The feedback from the parents and the youth is just how valuable it’s been to have this very intentional community created for kids, and they feel like they really know each other after 20 or so hours together online,” she said.
A permanent virtual offering to other programming is also being looked at by the institute, where further benefits have been observed. For example, online therapy group sessions have allowed clinicians to check in with individual kids simultaneously through private chat, adding a layer of care that didn’t exist before.
It has also been beneficial for the institute’s Intensive Community and Home Services programs, which provides therapy for families, as virtual sessions allow clinicians to see organic interactions between parents and children in real time.
Virtual care, McKeough added, is something that some families already requested pre-pandemic for reasons including convenience and lifestyle.
Ryan MacKenzie said part of the Child Development Institute’s mission was shifting to online services with intention, knowing that parts of it are likely here to stay and could define the future of mental health care. She recognizes some parts of care are still better in person, but maintaining virtual care can give more access for families.
“We will continue to need opportunities for safe places and private places (to connect), and sometimes it’s nice to have face-to-face contact,” she said. “I see this being added to the range of what is available.”
Nadine Yousif, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star