Changing Lives in the Great Outdoors
August 06, 2008
There comes a moment during summer camp orientation when parents smile and kids cringe: Absolutely no electronics are allowed at YMCA Camp Widjiwagan. No cell phones, no Game Boys, no iPods-not even hair dryers.
“The brochure spells this out, but somehow the kids gloss over it,” says Liz Flinn, who became Widji’s first female executive director in 2006.
Founded in 1929 in the wilds of northeastern Minnesota, Widjiwagan (an Ojibwe Indian word loosely translated as “comradeship” or “traveling companion for life”) offers wilderness adventure and environmental education for boys and girls aged 7 to 18. Its programs are designed to help young people develop leadership skills along with respect for self, community, and the environment. Programs include 10- to 21-day canoe trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Ontario, and the Northwest Territories; backpacking adventures in Wyoming, Montana, and Alaska; and weeklong environmental programs, launched during the 1970s, to introduce city kids to the wilds.
“About 75 to 80 percent of our kids are from Minnesota,” says Flinn. “The rest come from around the country, and many have parents with a connection to the camp or to Minnesota.”
Flinn is no exception. Her mom attended Widji during the 1950s and encouraged her and her brothers to spend at least one summer there. Many Lewis & Clark students have attended–first as campers and later as counselors.
“I was overwhelmed by my first canoe trip,” says Flinn. “I still remember my introduction to the Boundary Waters. It was so beautiful yet so hard–carrying food, gear, and even the canoe sometimes.”
While attending Lewis & Clark, Flinn spent her summers at Widji as a camp counselor. After graduating with a B.A. in communication, she returned to Minnesota, worked at several social service agencies, and served on Widji’s board of directors. When the executive director spot opened up, she jumped at the chance to lead an organization that had offered her such strong female role models and helped her find her stride–both personally and professionally.
“The biggest draw for me is the opportunities our programs provide for kids,” she says. “Coming off a 10-day canoe trip, they feel proud and accomplished–like they can do anything. It might have rained for the entire trip, but they come back smiling and happy. It’s a place where young people can find themselves, where they can learn who they are and what they’re capable of doing.”
Flinn works in St. Paul for most of the year but relocates to the camp during the summer. Depending on her workload, she heads out into the wild every chance she gets.
“Widjiwagan is a nice, quiet little corner of the world,” she says. “A lot of Minnesotans now want to build big vacation cabins on the state’s lakes. I’m actively working to make sure our camp stays remote, so that our children’s children will be able to come and enjoy this amazing wilderness area.”
–by Pattie Pace