They come from the justice system, from social services and from the mean streets of Alberta cities.
They leave with an opportunity.
That’s Camp Carmangay, in a nutshell, but the programming to help troubled kids is a complex mix of acceptance, conversation, activity and challenge.
The 20-acre property on the outskirts of Carmangay, Alta., is owned and operated by Brian Nimijean, who founded the camp 12 years ago with Paul Wagman of the Calgary Police Service.
Through referrals from various agencies and outreach by Nimijean himself, disadvantaged youths from the justice system, social services and street gangs can visit the camp and perhaps get new perspectives on their lives and futures.
“We deal with the toughest of the tough here,” said Nimijean.
“The objective here is to break or at least make an impact on the cycle of recurring incarceration as a lifestyle. This is not your standard Tim Hortons style of camp.”
Visitors have the opportunity to ride horses, walk the scenic Little Bow River Valley, canoe on the river, help with chores and do all or none of those things.
Nimijean, a former truck driver, said the process depends on the individual. The camp has hosted gang members, felons and addicts of various kinds, most of them younger than 18.
The program begins with acceptance.
“I think the relationship starts as one that is non-threatening. Let’s just chill. Let’s just relax,” Nimijean said.
“Let’s find out who you are, let’s first of all do that. Let’s just get you to a status where you’re sober. When you come out and you want to live, we’ll start with that.”
Neither Nimijean nor his partner, Alice May, worry about their safety, despite hosting youths convicted of dangerous crimes. They say they’ve never felt threatened by those who come to them.
However, there are some situations Nimijean said they cannot handle, among them a girl who used a switchblade to cut herself and a boy who killed one of the animals on site. Those are outnumbered by teens who have found help at the camp.
May said visitors have little to do with the residents of Carmangay, a view confirmed by village administration.
Mayor Kym Nichols gave a firm “no comment” when asked about the camp. However, a long list of service groups and individuals in Leth-bridge, Calgary and the surrounding area have contributed to its operations, with money and in-kind services and donations.
Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter, formerly with the Calgary Flames, has donated hockey equipment, and Olympic gold medalist Kaille Humphries has assisted with camp operations.
Despite past and regular donations, 2014 has brought funding shortfalls to Camp Carmangay, which has a $200,000 annual budget. Disastrous flooding in southern Alberta last year diverted many charitable funds to flood relief.
Rightly so, said Nimijean, but it left the operation struggling to find $75,000 to $100,000 so it can continue usual programming. Immediate needs include a lawn mower, hay for the 10 horses and septic services, but donations of any size are welcomed, said May. The camp’s Facebook page has a list.
A new building is nearing completion so the camp can host corporate gatherings. It already offers facilities for organized camps such as Cadets and Guides, which brings additional revenue.
The real mission, however, is helping troubled kids. Once they are away from an often desperate environment, be it homelessness, gang membership or something else, Nimijean and May help individuals discover their goals or passion in life and guide them toward options for education or employment.
“I’ve shown you the door, knocked on it with you and opened it up. You’ve got to go through it,” he said.
“I’ve never guaranteed success, but I will guarantee an opportunity to succeed. That’s the program.
“You lose some, too. You lose some to suicide. You lose the sad stories, too. It’s not all fun and games.”