Guest Blog: YMCA/YWCA of Vancouver Island honoring the past, protecting the future

The Y’s Camp Thunderbird is a local gem that has been operating since 1935, located in the beautiful and natural wilderness setting of the Sooke Hills.

The YMCA YWCA of Vancouver Island has been serving communities in our region since 1875. We operate health, fitness & aquatics facilities, childcare centres, an 1800 acre outdoor centre and summer camp, housing initiatives for young mothers and for youth at risk, and a variety of programs broadly categorized under community health, youth learning and leadership or outdoor activities.

One of the ways that our donors support us is through endowment funds, including a long relationship we have with the Victoria Foundation. The expertise and the professional caring staff there make it easy to set these up and create a legacy that will help ensure we can support the community for many years to come.

The Y’s Camp Thunderbird is a local gem that has been operating since 1935, located in the beautiful and natural wilderness setting of the Sooke Hills, but uniquely close enough for day programs from Victoria. Generations of local children and youth on the Island have grown up at Camp Thunderbird, developing the confidence and leadership skills to help them become successful adults. They create lifelong relationships, as well as a respectful appreciation for our natural environment.  We hear countless stories from parents about how a Camp Thunderbird experience “transformed” their child, or from local leaders sharing how much of their learning about life came from time spent at Camp.  The exhausted smiles on the faces of campers at the end of a day tell stories unto themselves.

Unfortunately, since the Covid-19 pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, our Y has been significantly affected. We lost 85% of our revenues when we were forced to close our main facilities and canceled scheduled overnight camp programs.  Since re-opening under highly restricted conditions, we’ve seen only a fraction of the regular participation and income generation from pre-pandemic levels. It has been a challenging time for our nonprofit charity, and more importantly the pandemic has taken a terribly negative toll on the physical and mental health of people in our communities.

The Nicola Benn Scholarship is named in memoriam for Natasha Benn’s sister (pictured above), who was a longtime Thunderbird alumnus and beloved camp counsellor.

One of the bright lights during the pandemic has been the incredible generosity that emerged here, and the innovative responses in finding ways for kids to stay active and engaged.  When the Y’s outdoor programs for the season were initially cancelled, many spirits were dampened, but our team went into planning mode to redesign the program while donors stepped up to ask how they could help.

With a few major gifts and the extra giving encouraged by our regular contributors, we made day camps happen up at Thunderbird during the second half of summer in 2020, and we are already into delivery of an adapted set of seasonal programs in 2021. With restrictions now starting to loosen, in large part due to the cooperation and efforts of the people in our communities who are following the rules, we are looking forward to ever greater resumption of activities and applying all that we have learned.

Many of the Y’s endowments are named for previous Camp Thunderbird participants, in recognition of their passion and how much they valued their time with others on these lands.  Scholarships from these funds help improve access to Camp for lower income families, and annual disbursements also help us to maintain and improve our site and buildings.  An example that deeply personalizes our relationship at Victoria Foundation and speaks to the connectedness of our community, the Nicola Benn Scholarship is named in memoriam for the Victoria Foundation’s Manager of Philanthropic Services Natasha Benn’s sister (pictured above), who was a longtime Thunderbird alumnus and beloved camp counsellor.