Disadvantaged mothers and their children find refuge at camp
**This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Jennifer Werry is a director and chair for Camp Cucumber, a registered non-profit charity staffed entirely by volunteers and funded by private and corporate donations.
Camp Cucumber is a place for struggling mothers to rest, relax and find peace in Northern Ontario in the last week of June.
While attending the camp, they are encouraged to embrace change, meet new friends, challenge themselves and share special moments with their kids.
Werry’s involvement with Camp Cucumber is one facet of her long-term commitment to philanthropic endeavours, including chairing fundraising events and developing educational institution programs.
For over three decades, the organization has partnered with social workers to offer an exciting one-week sleepover program for struggling single-mother families on social assistance with children aged five to 13.
Nestled on a lake in Haliburton, Ont., mothers and their kids can swim, boat, tap into their inner strength on the high ropes and climbing walls, dance under the stars and most importantly, make new friends.
Interview with Jennifer Werry:
What inspired the idea of Camp Cucumber?
The idea for Camp Cucumber emerged after having a successful Christmas dinner, supported by the Red Cross back in 1990, in the Jane-Finch community (neighbourhood in the northwest end of Toronto).
Many of the single mom families that we were working with struggled just to make ends meet, so the summer camp experience was simply too expensive for them. Our idea was to provide the opportunity to leave the city behind and experience the joy of nature and friendship in a safe and happy environment, not just for the kids but also for the moms.
After a lot of dedication, the successes of Camp Cucumber’s week-long outdoor experience allow us to go beyond our original mandate of just serving the Jane-Finch community. Now we welcome families from across the GTA.
What is your mission at Camp Cucumber?
Our mission is to enhance the lives of single mothers and children that are struggling with poverty, isolation and abuse by offering a unique, stress-free experience not too far from home.
From the moment they board the busses that carry them to camp, we want to provide these families with a stress-free environment that results in a feeling of FREEDOM:
F – Fun
R – Respect
E – Empathy
E – Empowerment
D – Diversity
O – Openness
M – Memories
What is special about this program?
The week-long camp is often the first time these families have been outside an urban setting. All their needs are met, and the mothers have a break from their children throughout the day.
The mothers have an opportunity to share their life experiences in a non-judgemental and confidential setting. As well, they have an opportunity to relax and be pampered.
The families enjoy a beautiful lakefront setting with an array of activities: Swimming, kayaking, paddle boarding, pontoon boat rides, canoeing, volleyball and playing in the sand.
We also put together an annual celebratory Christmas dinner to rekindle camp friendships that were made.
Are there any personal experiences that made you aware of the necessity for Camp Cucumber?
I have personally been involved with Camp Cucumber since 2005. I was extremely naïve my first couple of years at camp.
I was totally unaware of the number of our families who accessed food banks, who felt isolated and alone and who were discriminated against and felt marginalized because of language and educational barriers.
After my second year at camp, I received a phone call from one of our moms who was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was terrified and overwhelmed and did not know which way to turn with three young children to care for.
I immediately jumped in and helped her navigate her way through the health care system, care for her children and help with housing and finances. That was in 2006, and we are still involved with her children, but sadly the mother passed away in 2017.
What is your experience with women in shelters and those who have gone through domestic violence and/or sexual assault?
Shelters are a safe haven as well as a refuge for women who are fleeing abuse. They are, for the most part, well run and the staff are empathetic towards their clients.
Unfortunately, there are many shelters for women that are poorly run and are not able to give these women the services they deserve.
The shelters that I have worked with offer a myriad of services and resources, including personal hygiene items and diapers. They typically offer fun-themed programming for the moms and children. These shelters strive to offer a structure, routine, and some sense of normalcy to families who have been uprooted because of abuse.
What has inspired you to work with women specifically?
Rather than simply writing a cheque to support various charities that support women, I felt a strong need to work closely with women and their children. Camp Cucumber, with its hands-on approach to charity, provided a solution to my problem.
I have been at camp every year for the last 17 years, working alongside these moms and their children. I have also worked outside the camp setting, helping families with issues ranging from legal, financial, educational, and emotional support.
I feel that women must stick together despite their differences. We must help one another and create a safe space for us all, no matter the circumstances.
How might a woman reach out to your organization for help?
Typically for Camp Cucumber, struggling single moms are made aware of the week-long getaway from their social workers.
There are also organizations that women can reach out to if they do not have access to a social worker, which are kept more private for safety purposes, but I would gladly direct any woman who is in need if they would like to contact me.
What do you hope to achieve with your work?
I strive to help women access professional pro bono help depending on their individual circumstances and needs. These can be legal, housing, educational, parenting skills, language skills, guidance and leadership.
I have spent a lifetime championing those less fortunate than myself through educational endeavours. Camp Cucumber has provided a tremendously fulfilling opportunity to put the skills and experience I have garnered to work.
Do you feel that there is more to be done for these women?
I had an epiphany at camp this year.
We do not have enough legal aid workers, social workers, educational consultants, therapists, volunteers, etc., to deal with the pressing and time-sensitive needs of these women. It is daunting, and each woman comes to camp with a story that is heartbreaking.
We are only meeting a microcosm of the population. I love what I do, and I do what I can, but it is not nearly enough.