Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Inner-city kids hungry to succeed

U of W youth camp cooked up by a couple of area's fortunate sons

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I don't understand why anyone who knows anything about the Canadian government's appalling history of abusing and neglecting First Nations peoples would have been surprised at this week's most recent reviling revelation.

But I still was.

What were the federal government and some of the country's leading nutritionists of the time thinking when, between 1942 and 1952, they treated malnourished students in Indian residential schools like laboratory rats, instead of vulnerable and starving Canadian children?

Obviously they weren't thinking of the children. Or people in aboriginal communities fed vitamins instead of what they really needed.

More food.

This week I visited a place where one couldn't help but be struck by the contrast between the treatment of aboriginal children then and how their grandchildren are treated now.

The place is a summer day camp for inner-city students between the ages of seven and 12 that was the joint vision of University of Winnipeg president Lloyd Axworthy and NDP MLA Kevin Chief, both former inner-city kids themselves.

Not all 1,200 kids who spend one five-day week at the university's summer camp are aboriginal, of course. In fact, First Nations children looked to be a minority among minorities on the day I visited. And there are other camps for inner-city youth in the city, most notably Camp Manitou, the long-running non-profit by the Assiniboine River in Headingley that has been a slice of heaven for thousands of at-risk kids for decades.

There are obvious similarities between the six-year-old U of W's Eco-Kids Summer Camp and the more established Camp Manitou. Both are fun destinations to escape for children who need a safe place. And yes, both feed the kids nutritious meals. But the venues, and missions, are different.

Eco-Kids is more urban; the concrete floor of the Sargent Park Arena, the surrounding park and pool. And, understandably, the U of W's camp is education-driven.

The education focuses on the environment and the elements earth, wind, water and fire.

"Did you know," one sign attached to the rink's backboards asks rhetorically, "it takes glass one million years to decompose, which means it can be recycled an infinite amount of times?"

But the overarching emphasis is education itself, convincing kids they can not only get a high school degree, they can go to university, too.

Axworthy was acutely aware of why the U of W needed to make that their mission.

There are inner-city schools, he told me, where half of the students drop out by Grade 9. And Axworthy felt he and the university had to try to reach out and open the door as wide as possible.

One of the door-openers was to waive university tuition for students who had grown up in foster care, a practice some other Canadian universities have followed.

Actually, Axworthy's camp co-founder, U of W grad Kevin Chief, might have been one of those high school dropouts himself.

"I grew up in social assistance," Chief told me.

But he could shoot a basketball like few others. And he knew if he didn't get the grades, he couldn't play for the school. That, plus a mentor who saw his potential as a player and more importantly as a person, got him through university.

Chief wanted the Eco-Camp to echo the kind of goals of learning, discipline and fun that got him through school and eventually led to him becoming Manitoba's minister responsible for the Department of Children and Youth Opportunities.

Talk about a perfect fit.

Thursday afternoon, both Axworthy and Chief were at the camp, escorting potential donors on a tour of the arena, where kids were running, bouncing and tumbling in every corner. Until all 200 of them sat down and listened attentively as Axworthy gave them a pep talk that concluded with this question.

"Are you going to be a university student?"

"YES," they shouted back at a rock concert's decibel levels.

No one knows how many will actually get there, or even graduate from high school.

But later, Axworthy and Chief talked about one of the special ones who did.

Her name is Jessica Lavallee.

She began as an eco-camper, went on to become one of the camp's junior leaders and ended up with a four-year U of W Collegiate scholarship where she was part of a supportive learning program. And in May, the 17-year-old aboriginal graduated from high school.

I asked Lloyd Axworthy what he and others saw in Jessica that made them reach out to help her help herself.

"She had an appetite."

He said it without a hint of irony. Maybe because that's who Lloyd Axworthy is, and that's what his greatest legacy will be when he leaves the university next June.

He is the man who tried to make room for every starving mind he could find.

Especially aboriginal youth who were lucky to be around when he was cooking.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 20, 2013 B1

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