It took almost two years of negotiating with the province but Lake Shebandowan’s Wilderness Discovery Camp for disabled people will re-open next spring under ownership of a group of service clubs.
Handicapped Action Group Inc. (HAGI) had leased the former YMCA Camp Carson-Cross from the government but was unable to maintain it. The camp has proven popular with a variety of disabled users, providing specialized access to the lake.
MPP Bill Mauro, in whose Thunder Bay-Atikokan riding the property exists, announced the new arrangements Thursday, though they were effective Aug. 11 when ownership of the property and buildings was transferred from the Government of Ontario through Infrastructure Ontario.
The new ownership group, called Wilderness Discovery Handi-Capable Inc., is comprised of the area Rotary clubs — Thunder Bay, Fort William, Port Arthur, Lakehead and Nipigon as well as the Hill City Kinsmen Club and Westfort Kiwanis. A board of directors consists of one member from each of the service clubs, one from the Shebandowan campers association and one from HAGI.
The board is working to refurbish the newly-named Wilderness Discovery Handi-Capable Centre in June of 2018.
The plan is to broaden the user base from the previous HAGI era, where the camp was primarily used by people with physical disabilities, by marketing to a wider range of people with disabilities, Mauro said in a prepared statement.
The plan also includes working with veterans groups and a variety of other agencies that work with people with disabilities.
“The camp will be the first in Ontario to offer affordable quality camping and outdoor recreation to such a broad range of people with disabilities,” Mauro said.
Spokesmen for users had been critical of the government for the long delay in arranging to keep the camp open. Kevin Johnson, of Madison Lake, Minn., was the primary voice trying to convince the province to release HAGI from its lease payments. He secured more than 20,000 signatures on a Change.org petition on behalf of a disabled Vietnam war veteran that he and his wife cared for and annually brought to the camp.
“It’s a shame that it took a disability caregiver from a town of 1,000 who is on duty 24/7 for a paralyzed veteran in his own home to devote enough time to reach out to 20,000 trusting and caring Canadian souls,” Johnson wrote in a letter to The Chronicle-Journal in April of 2015.
Johnson died on Sept. 29 of this year.
Work has already begun to refurbish the cabins in an effort to bring everything up to the new building code and Accessible Ontarians with Disabilities Act standards, Mauro said.
Individuals or groups interested in helping out can contact Rotary spokesman and new board chair Bob Hookham at email@example.com
A public awareness day will be held this fall to invite user groups and the general public out to provide input on how the facility can best meet the needs of the people using it. A contractors day will also take place for local companies interested in providing provide quotes on required work.
“It was an extremely satisfying day when I was able to announce that a deal was reached between the new ownership group and the province, that would keep the Wilderness Discovery Camp open,” Mauro said.
“The new Wilderness Discovery Handi-Capable Centre ownership group is comprised of leaders in our community who have stepped up time and time again to support a variety of key initiatives that have contributed to the quality of life for people living in Thunder Bay and the region. They have a vision and plan for the centre that will lead to not only the sustainability of the centre, but which will also contribute towards the important work of promoting inclusion and creating opportunities for people with disabilities. I look forward to a bright future for the centre and I want to thank the new ownership group for their dedication and commitment to supporting people living with disabilities.”
Hookham said the service clubs worked with Mauro and Infrastructure Ontario “and came up with plan. In the short term we will work to rebuild the resort to make it equal to and better than it has been in the past.
“Negotiations took almost two years,” Hookham said, but that a number of government officials told him “that this was one of the fastest ones they’ve seen.
“I commend the hard work from different organizations to make it happen . . . we did it as a collaborative effort. It’s not about doing this right; it was doing the right thing.
“Going forward, there will be lots of work within all of the different volunteers, community groups and professionals.”