Keegan McAuley will remember his first day with campCARE for the rest of his life. As a nine-year-old, he was introduced to the camp, now known as the Legacy Program, through the Squamish Nation, opening the whole world of snowboarding and a positive, supportive environment to him for his joyful forays.
The Legacy Program offers opportunities to young people facing challenges in their backgrounds with snowboarding and action sports activity weekends in Whistler, and McAuley took to snowboarding avidly in his first outing with the group.
"I thought it was awesome. I just didn't want it to end," he said of his first session with campCARE.
Bolstered by the instruction, gear and support he gained through the program, McAuley fell in love with snowboarding, giving him an option to the difficult environment in the West Vancouver reserve where he lived all his life.
"This is what campCARE does. It takes troubled kids out of society and gives them something positive to do with their lives," McAuley said.
But away from the mountains, with the campCARE sessions only happening once per month, McAuley wasn't doing the positive things and he "started hanging around with the wrong kind of crowd," and dropped out of school in Grade 9.
Returning at age 17 to chaperone kids at a camp, McAuley got back into snowboarding and went on to compete in the provincial championships in 2004.
But another difficult period saw him leave the sport and the program behind for another stretch, where McAuley got into serious trouble with drugs and gangs.
Out on bail right now and grateful to be spending time with his family on the reserve, the 20-year-old said he wants to get back into snowboarding and give back to the kids in the program that helped him so much.
McAuley said he came to be a volunteer coach at last weekend's (Feb. 28 and March 1) Legacy Program session to step in with the kids in similar situations to tell them where this road leads.
"I just want to make an impact, if there's kids there like me (in the program), which there is," McAuley said. He said he wants to give back to the program because "they did a lot for me and they kept me on track for a long time."
Heidi Landau, who founded and directs the 14-year-old program, said all of the kids and volunteer coaches at last weekend's first camp of the season were "really excited for the opportunity to be here."
In the Legacy Program sessions, the Fairmont Chateau Whistler hosts the participants and Whistler Blackcomb provides high-level instructors and lift tickets for the kids.
Landau said the program currently has about 12 kids from the corridor and the Lower Mainland.
The current group is the third generation of young people to pass through the positive development program designed by Landau. She said it's been a life-changing experience to watch the benefits of bringing children from low-service, high-needs communities together to learn snowboarding in a healing environment like WB.
For many urban youths who are at risk, "it's a rarity that you can find open arms" that wholeheartedly encourage them to excel in sport, Landau said. The program is about restoring dignity and transforming lives, she said.
From the strong support from program partners WB and the Chateau to expressions of generosity such as Tom Horler's treating the participants to dinner at McDonald's, the local community has warmly welcomed these kids who are "so very, very dear and appreciative," Landau said.
With the challenging economic times, Landau said she's especially grateful that the program will be able to run one more camp this season. The program is tax-deductible pledges and community support to sponsor young people in need so they can continue to attend.
The program's coaching staff includes Christa Graham, Christina and Marcus Culver, Braden Dean, Mike Doyle, Alison Pasemko, Kasia Jasinowski and camp assistant director and former participant Gabriela DiGiuseppe.