Summer camp for disabled Montrealers struggles to find counsellors
A Montreal West Island association is worried its members, which include children and adults with disabilities or autism, won't enjoy the full scope of regular programming this summer as hiring new staff has proven especially difficult.
Tracy Wrench, the manager of recreation service at the West Island Association for the Intellectually Handicapped (WIAIH), had hoped to restart the overnight camp program this year, which has been on hold since the start of the pandemic.
But a few weeks into the recruitment period, she's only managed four out of the 25 counsellors needed to run the camp.
"I'm stressed about being able to provide these services to our participants and notably their families," she said.
Her organization has long been a source of respite for parents and caregivers responsible for people with disabilities or autism, Wrench said. "I feel personally like I'm letting down our members."
The issue extends to the association's day camps as well. The centre in Pointe-Claire, which is one of three in the city offering day camps, needs six recreation staff. Only two have been secured so far.
Anibal Gabrielli has relied on the association for over four years when it comes to taking care of his daughter Katie, who has epilepsy and uses a wheelchair. Their programming has been helpful to him especially since Gabrielli's wife died at the beginning of the pandemic.
He says WIAIH's services have also been life-changing for Katie. She comes to the centre four to five times a week after school and attends the day camps offered in the summer.
"Before she used to go just to school and then come home. Now she's doing all these activities all week long and it revived her," says Gabrielli. "She's happier."
Last Friday, Katie attended a dance party in Pointe-Claire. It's one of the many activities she enjoys doing with the group, others include cooking and online bingo.
"Everything and everyone," she says when asked what she loves the most about the activities offered at the association.
Anibal says he hopes WIAIH will succeed in fully staffing its programs or he'll have to find other ways to keep Katy entertained and active.
Low recruitment rates have been affecting camps across Quebec, according to the executive director of the Quebec Camp Association, Eric Beauchemin.
"In camps usually their salaries are not a main factor and we're seeing salaries getting higher [all] around us," he said. Camps for people with disabilities are under more pressure, he explained, since the nature of their work requires a lower camper-to-counsellor ratio.
Though other employers might be able to increase salaries to attract workers, Wrench says that isn't an option for the non-profit. They're already offering the highest wage they can afford — $16.75 per hour for day camp counsellors and slightly more for staff at the overnight camp.
Beauchemin also says the Quebec Camp Association is offering grants this year to certified overnight camps to help out but, according to Wrench, WIAIH can't apply because it rents the premises for its program from Camp Kinkora.
"It really is a fun, rewarding experience, great memories, great friendships. It's one of the strengths of WIAIH," says Wrench.
In the meantime, she'll continue to promote the job openings and consider hiring part-time staff who can't commit to a full-time position.