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Family business offers unique rewards

 Olivia saddles Ivy as one of her six-year-old campers watches. Christalee Froese photo

WOLF CREEK, Sask. — When Robin Exner and Barb Price were staff members at Circle Square Ranch in the early 1990s, they could never have imagined that they would still be at the same camp 25 years later.

However, after their courtship and marriage, followed by the birth of their first child, the Saskatchewan couple decided to take on the job of running the ranch in 1998.

Seventeen years later, Robin and Barb and their four children are the driving family force that keeps the year-around children’s camp and retreat centre running smoothly.

“I look at it as a calling,” said Exner, executive director of Circle Square Ranch near Wolseley, Sask.

“I feel like I grew up here because I was a camper here and then I went on to be a summer staff member, and even in high school and university I always came back in the summers to volunteer.”

Exner serves as the general overseer of operations at the ranch and Price is an assistant, having served in a variety of roles from office clerk to kitchen manager.

Eighteen-year-old Olivia runs the junior horse program, 16-year-old Morgan is a staff member, 14-year-old Tanner takes care of grass cutting and odd jobs and 12-year-old Nadine does canteen duty and housekeeping. Nadine is still fortunate enough to get a week off and become a camper like the other kids her age.

With up to 650 campers and staff passing through the ranch’s doors each summer and numerous other groups visiting during the fall, spring and winter, Circle Square is a multi-faceted operation that requires input from the entire Exner family.

“We feel a calling to do it and work with youth because we want to make a difference,” said Barb, who sees many children blossom during the summer camp program.

The camp features one-week sessions for campers aged six to 18. Programming includes horseback riding, wall climbing, archery and water sports set in a Christian-values atmosphere. Children come from across Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba and stay in stationary covered wagons, each containing eight bunks.

The camp was founded 30 years ago by area farmer and pastor Norm Bonk. Operating on a cost-recovery and donation model, the Wolf Creek Circle Square Ranch is part of a network of nine Inter-Varsity camps across Canada.

The Exners find it a challenge to keep their private and personal lives separate from camp life. In the summer they are consumed with duties from 6 a.m. to about 10 p.m.

“It’s like a family business be-cause all of the kids are involved so, like farming, it can be all-encompassing,” Price said.

“We try to keep some days off and we try to keep our personal belongings at our home because when you live and work here, the two lives become intertwined.”

Olivia said growing up at work and play on Circle Square Ranch has afforded her opportunities that urban living could not.

“I feel older than my age because I’ve grown up here and there’s been a lot of expectations as the oldest of four,” said Olivia, who teaches children aged six to nine to groom and ride.

Riding year round and buying and boarding only the quietest and best-trained horses has allowed the Circle Square Ranch to develop a program that is safe for beginner riders.

The ideal horse for the Exners is a gelded quarter horse that measures about 14 to 15 hands high, is eight to 12 years old and has had significant riding and training.

“We look for family horses or 4-H horses that have been ridden but might not be getting used at home anymore because the kids who rode them have grown up,” said Robin.

While Olivia said she sometimes longs for a summer holiday, she sees the value of life on the ranch. So does her dad.

“The kids miss out on some things being here, but they gain an appreciation for other things like the value of a good work ethic and appreciation for the work that goes on behind the scenes,” said Exner.

When camp recesses for the summer, the Exners host retreats, school classes and groups who rent the ranch on a daily or multi-day basis. Morgan said he sometimes looks forward to the end of summer camp season and the return to school in Montmartre, Sask.

However, the dawn of spring is always an exciting time for him.

“By the end of winter, I usually miss all of the staff because I like hanging out with them. It’s nice to have that break in the off season, but I’m always pumped when everyone comes back to camp again.”

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