Michael Ryndzak smiles as he describes the camp that has provided comfort to members of the Ukrainian community in Ottawa for more than five decades.
It’s nestled in the green hills of the Outaouais, a short drive north of the national capital, and while not luxurious – it has dormitories and a few cottages on the banks of a lake – it’s a source of fond memories for him and other members of his community.
In the summer, he says, children play in the water, sing songs by a seaside campfire, and watch performances in an open-air amphitheater.
But the camp is also aging. It is worse for wear and tear in some areas and needs repairs and general maintenance.
This year, those repairs are particularly important, Ryndzak said, as he and his colleagues from Ukraine’s Canadian Social Services, a charitable organization created to help individuals and families of Ukrainian background, plan to save at least 35 young children and mothers. who recently fled the war in Ukraine.
The children, aged between 8 and 13, have been affected by the war trauma and the tumult of displacement. “It’s unbelievable what they’ve been through,” Ryndzak says. “We have decided to mobilize the entire community for those children to give them a moment to relax at the (camp).”
It was an idea partly out of necessity, says Ryndzak. More than five million people have fled the country since Russia launched its attack on Ukraine on February 24. Most are refugees in neighboring countries, such as Poland, but thousands have come to Canada.
Ryndzak says the Ukrainian community in Ottawa is working hard to receive new refugees and make them feel at home. For the children who have fled the conflict, that means going the extra mile to make them feel like children again by giving them the opportunity to make friends, play and participate in camp activities – normal children’s things.
However, to give the kids that environment, Ryndzak says he needs supplies. The camp was founded shortly after World War II by Ukrainians who had come to Canada after fleeing Nazi concentration camps. Many of the original managers are old and unable to perform the necessary maintenance. Now it falls to UCSS to make repairs before the kids arrive in mid-July.
“We need a lot of supplies, everything we can get, especially for the kids who come to the camp,” Ryndzak says. “They must have good conditions in the rooms for sleeping.”
Among the materials he needs, Ryndzak mentions paint, cushions and tables. There are even a few windows that need to be replaced, and he advocates community donations of leftover building supplies, such as plywood and two-by-fours, which can be expensive.
There is also a need for personal items such as towels and soap. “Those kids from Ukraine will have nothing, so basically we have to provide them all,” Ryndzak says, adding that UCSS has already gathered some hygiene supplies and other items for the kids.
Ryndzak is also looking for therapists who can lend a hand to help the children cope with everything they went through when they fled Ukraine. He is on the lookout and in contact with some qualified doctors who have offered their services.
But the camp activities themselves are also intended as a kind of therapy session for the children.
dr. Arthur Blouin, an Ottawa psychologist with decades of experience and one of the co-founders of the Center for Cognitive Therapy, says children fleeing conflict zones can be quite resilient, but can also experience severe psychological consequences, in part due to the rapid uncertainty that arises. involves displacement: the departure of relatives, friends and even familiar things such as toys.
A summer camp environment is designed to give the children the opportunity to meet new friends and behave like children, even though they have experienced events that few children have experienced.
“Fun play is very important in children’s development in general,” Blouin says, “and of course, in a situation like this, when kids can come and have fun and play, that’s tremendously valuable in adapting to this long-term stress and it is also important for adults too.”
Ryndzak says some children of Ukrainian descent from Ottawa will also attend the camp to help integrate the newcomers. In addition to precious time at the lake, swimming and enjoying the great outdoors, he says he has planned nature walks with the kids and there will be art sessions and dance classes.
“(We will) have artists teaching them to draw and make murals on the walls of the camp because it is so old that no one will mind if the children paint something and leave a footprint for new generations for everyone who will come later as a milestone of whatever this event can be,” he says. “Imagine murals staying there. I think it’s a great idea.”
Ryndzak says anyone who can help with donations or would like to contact UCSS should email [email protected] or call him directly at 613-724-8206.