Helping generations of Albertans connect with the outdoor world
For more than 40 years, Camp Warwa has offered children and families from across Alberta the chance to experience and enjoy outdoor pursuits. Located an hour northwest of Edmonton on the shores of Lac St. Anne, the camp is a year-round destination, hosting more than 8,000 children annually for seasonal camping trips, outdoor education programs, and leadership programs.
As the camp prepared for its milestone 40-year anniversary in 2020, things were looking good. Over the years, the camp had grown thanks to the support of volunteers and staff who helped to build and maintain outdoor pavilions, gathering halls, and accommodations for staff and campers. Thanks to the generous donations of modular buildings from oil and gas camps, Camp Warwa had been able to keep most of its facilities up to date as the years passed, but there was one critical update left to be done: the Dining Hall.
“The Dining Hall was the last domino left to fall for us,” says Gerrit Leewes, executive director. “It had a capacity of 120, but we were holding camps for 160 kids. It wasn’t sustainable, especially as our programs kept growing.”
Finally, in the year of the camp’s 40th anniversary, plans for a new dining facility were coming together. In the spring of 2020, the camp secured financing to allow for the project to go ahead. The groundbreaking was set to move forward that fall, after the peak summer camp season had passed. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, things changed.
“The day the camp was required to close for COVID, we finalized a grant we’d been waiting on from the Alberta government,” says Leewes. “At that point we were really wrestling with what to do. Should we move forward with a 1.75 million-dollar project when we’re potentially about to lose all of our revenue for the year? The feeling in the industry was that we were standing on a cliff and the cliff just went out from under us. We were falling and we had no control over it, but we did have the choice to try to jump and take control of where we were landing.”
Rather than hold back in the face of uncertainty, Gerrit and team chose to jump, leaning into the planned redevelopment. For all the uncertainty they faced, they found opportunity, including financial support from SEF. They were able to negotiate a better rate with their builder, who, at the time was also facing the uncertain economic realities of life in the pandemic. With the camp closed for the summer, the project moved ahead at full speed. By the time spring 2021 rolled around, the new 7,000-square-foot Dining Hall stood proud on the campground, with space for 210 people inside and room for an additional 50 on the outdoor patio—space that was particularly important in the face of pandemic-driven capacity changes.
“Obviously we weren’t planning to need the additional space to accommodate reduced capacity,” says Leewes. “But the way this has all played out, it’s definitely helpful for us to have more room.”
In summer 2021, the camp reopened with reduced capacity for its summer programs. Although operations aren’t quite back to where they were pre-COVID, Leewes notes the camp experience might be exactly what children and families need to get back to a sense of normalcy.
“Pre-COVID, the benefits of camp were great for kids, socially, environmentally, and just in terms of personal growth. We operate around a four-pillar structure, helping kids to connect with themselves, their community, the natural world, and other generations,” he says. “After this year of being apart and disconnected from one another, camp is going to be more vital than ever.”