What makes Licola Wilderness Village so important?
I have just returned from my second visit to Licola. Personally, the camp provides me with a renewed sense of purpose, of giving service and connecting with young disadvantaged children. For one week there is only one purpose; support and provide the best possible holiday to these children. For this relatively short time, with no other distractions- no phones, television, news, internet or pressing deadlines- everything is put on the backburner to help other people. I like that I can focus completely on what a child is talking about, whether that be who is the better superhero (I am currently well versed on this topic) or sometimes issues that may be troubling them at home. I try to encourage them to take some risks, have fun and make new friends. I have previously written on how the camp operates, and so instead have decided to briefly touch on two issues; what value is the camp in the long run to these children and what further opportunities are there for Lions clubs to be involved and how can we incorporate our mantra of service to encourage more young people to be involved in Lions.
The reason I began to think about these topics was purely circumstance. In the first, I happened to be one of only two Lions at the camp when NewsCorp reporters were on site as part of the ‘Community 100 program’ and I was asked by Adam (camp director) to discuss my thoughts on the camp from a Lions point of view. Secondly, my 20 year old daughter came on camp with me and it focussed my attention on how important it is to have young people volunteering to lead these children, particularly male, and further, how this is a perfect Leos’ service project.
The reporter asked me a series of questions, how I felt? Why did I come? How were the children selected? Did many Lions volunteer? Yet one question stood out… ‘In the long run, what difference does this camp make to a child’s life?’ In many instances the children are chosen from single-parent or home environments where social disadvantage is most prevalent. Of course once the camp is over they go back to the same situation. So what changes?
I must admit that I struggled to adequately answer the question. Yes, it builds confidence, gives them a break, and they make new friends- but in reality, they do go back to the same environment. So when I provided this answer to the reporter it made me think: “Is this all they get out of the camp?”
In my group of nine year old boys I watched as genuine friendships grew, these kids were from all over the place; the Yarra Valley, Box Hill, Dandenong and the Morning Peninsula. There was no other basis for friendship except age group and that they would be living together for a week. Yet, on both camps I have seen real friendships grow, on the last camp I watched as two shy boys swapped email addresses and on this camp I witnessed a group of six boys swapping phone numbers (I did have one boy ask if I knew his phone number which was pretty cute!). I believe it is because they wanted to keep what they found on the camp going- to be honest, so would I. In fact, to a tee all the children talked about their desire to return in the following year, some even discussed coming back as camp leaders in the future. Perhaps it was a sense of camaraderie, of the fact that they are not the only ones in difficult circumstances, or maybe it is just kids being kids? I don’t think it matters, but I do believe the week does make a difference. If nothing else we, as volunteer group leaders, not just encourage and support them but by our very presence (as volunteers) show them that they are valued by society. We are willing to spend our time with them- no strings attached! Most of these children are probably involved in government programs and work with other community organisations, but this is quite an intense week of one-on-one relationship building. The more these children are supported by their community the better for both them and society in the long run.
But it is more than that, there is something life affirming at Licola. Things are simple, the air is clean, the grounds immaculate, everyone is supportive and yet there are challenges- possibly the message is to put yourself out there and good things can happen. That you are worth something! Perhaps it builds resilience, but in-reality most these kids have that in spades.
When the boys arrived, we sat them down in the cabin and spoke about how we were a family unit for a week, we had to look after each other and make the most of every opportunity. We continued to emphasise this message during the week. In turn, the boys shared both silly ‘fun’ subjects and some difficult topics with each other and with us (group leaders). During the week trust develops and barriers fall away, and even if it is only for a short time I believe it is of invaluable experience and one that will help them back in the ‘real-world’.
So if I had my time again and could address the reporter’s question? In one word I believe the camp develops trust. Of course many of the children have strong relationships with a parent or guardian, but at Licola they learn to trust both volunteer leaders and new friends in a pseudo family environment. They make friends, they build confidence, they have fun, but most of all they learn to trust.
Group leaders are fundamental to this trust relationship.
I believe this is a perfect Leos or younger Lion’s service project. From what I have observed there is a genuine shortage of young male volunteers, and by far the young males are the most popular with the children. There have been two young males on both camps, a 17 year old, one in his early 20s and one remarkable person in his mid-20s who volunteers for most camps as part of his annual leave entitlement. As a group leader you are a mentor and role model. Many of these children lack male role models. For example on this camp, I was closely involved with fourteen children, of which at least five did not have a father or had never met them whilst I believe that nearly all lived with one parent, grandparent or guardian. To spend a week with a young male role model would be of invaluable benefit.
Licola would benefit from young male role models. At the same time, as an organisation, Lions want and need to recruit new members. This means finding new and innovative ways of involving young people in ways that maximise their personal attributes in programs that are both flexible and of genuine concern to them. But it is not just Leos, personally I was attracted to Lions because it enabled you to participate in community programs that you were most interested.
There are a number of clear benefits of highlighting Licola as a source of prospective new members; obviously Leos is a major potential source. Not only does it strengthen the ties between Licola management and Lions (who after-all own the property and pay for the children to attend) but addresses a fundamental of this organisation- service. We should not just donate, we should serve. Furthermore, volunteering at Licola is only for one week. Many younger members or potential members may be put off by long-term projects. Today they live in a world where they are likely to travel frequently and therefore committing to a 12 month project is not ideal. Additionally, this type of project can be run at club, zone or district level. This would further tighten bonds between clubs and principally its younger members. By promoting volunteering as a service project for Leos utilises their strengths (energy, youth) with the needs of Licola and most especially the children who need young role models in their lives.
This camp was different for me because my daughter decided to volunteer with me, and whilst we were like ships passing in the night as she chased her 8 year olds and I my 9 year olds around the park it was wonderful to watch her soak in the Licola spirit. The children love the young volunteers, many of these come to the camps from Australian Catholic University (ACU is majority female), who have a mandatory volunteer component as part of their undergraduate degree. On this camp there were six returning university students (to which my daughter quickly joined their social clan!), this an example of once you volunteer at Licola-you will return!