When Barbara Gray applied for a two-week summer nursing position at Easter Seals Blue Mountain Camp in 1988, she never imagined a 32 year career with the organization. “I didn’t actually get the job at Blue Mountain,” Barb shares. “Instead, I was hired for the full summer at [Easter Seals] Northwood Camp near Kirkland Lake. I have to admit, the first summer was difficult. It wasn’t an easy job, but I decided to give it a second chance.”
While Barb would spend the next 32 summers devoted to the campers and counsellors as the Director of Easter Seals camps, Northwood (1988 – 2001; Director from 1990 – 2001) Lakewood (2002-2004) and Merrywood (2005-2019), her accomplishments and contributions extend well beyond this role.
During the 1990’s in the off-season, Barb worked part-time as a nurse at the Hugh MacMillan Centre (now known as Holland Bloorview) and volunteered in Easter Seals Ontario’s office, while also pursuing an undergrad degree in Social Anthropology, a Master’s of Social Work followed by a Master’s of Nursing. Recognizing Barb’s talents and knowledge of working with children and youth with physical disabilities, Easter Seals offered her a full-time position in 1999.
By 2002, Barb’s leadership qualities also shone through and she was appointed Sr. Manager of the organization’s Recreation Program, in addition to maintaining her role as Director of Camp Lakewood.
With Barb’s knowledge and passion to make camp fun and exciting, it’s no coincidence Easter Seals Ontario has become a leader in therapeutic recreation programs for children and youth with physical disabilities. “Barb has an unyielding belief that kids with physical disabilities should be given opportunities to try new activities and see how far they can push themselves,” says Kevin Collins, President and CEO of Easter Seals Ontario. “She’s a big reason why we offer our campers exciting activities like white water rafting, overnight out-trips to Algonquin Park, and a high ropes course.”
In addition to adding activities, Barb used her innovation and creativity to develop and implement several innovative programs to meet the needs of campers of all ages. She developed Discovery Camp for younger campers to try overnight camp on their own. She introduced the Leaders in Training program to help young adults develop leadership, communication and teamwork skills. And when she saw there were next to no recreation opportunities for kids beyond the age of 18, Barb developed GEAR UP for young adults up to the age of 26.
“Barb is all about making it fun for the kids but she is also always listening, thinking and developing new ways to help expand their skills and independence,” continues Kevin.
Seeing the campers develop over the years has been a bright spot in Barb’s career. “I’ve known many of our campers since they first came to Family Camp when they were very young,” informs Barb. “It’s been wonderful to see them grow up and mature into amazing young adults. Many come back to volunteer with us or work as counsellors and others have gone on to be spokespersons in the disability field”
As Barb describes it, “Camp is a workplace, but it’s also a community.” She acknowledges the days are long and there are ups and downs of living together with the camp staff, but they all “really become like a family.”
Over the years Barb has hired, trained and mentored thousands of counsellors and has found it gratifying to watch them grow during their time at camp. “I’ve seen a lot of counsellors start off homesick and doubtful they could do the job, but by the end of the summer they’ve grown and are much more confident. Many have even changed their career paths to work in this field.”
The staff, in turn hold Barb in the highest regard and are deeply grateful for all she has taught them. “My experience with Easter Seals camps, under Barb’s direction, has significantly impacted my life, both professionally and personally,” says Kate Goodfellow, former counsellor and now Director of Easter Seals Camp Merrywood. “I have been fortunate to have Barb, one of those highly-respected camp veterans, as a supervisor, colleague and friend. There is no one I would rather learn from than the one who knows Easter Seals camps better than anyone else! I am only one of thousands of staff who has had the privilege of working alongside and learning from Barb over the course of her long career. I also know that I am only one of thousands of individuals – campers, staff, families, donors and more – whose lives have been positively impacted and shaped by Barb’s commitment and dedication to the mission of Easter Seals Ontario.”
“I can’t say enough about the impact Barb has had on Easter Seals. She has been the heart and soul of our camping and recreation program and taken it entirely to another level,” emphasizes Kevin Collins. “Her dedication and passion have positively influenced the children we serve as well as their parents, extended family members and our staff. Easter Seals is truly very fortunate to have had Barb’s leadership and innovation for 32 years. We sincerely thank her for her service and wish her much happiness and many memorable moments in retirement.”