“I don’t know how you grow up without this experience,” says Don McCreesh. He isn’t talking about school, or sports, or any of the other things we more readily think of as essential to childhood. He’s talking about summer camp.
If you’ve been involved in camping, philanthropy, or any initiative toward getting kids more active in Canada anytime in the last 30 years, you’ve likely come across Don McCreesh. He was a board member at various levels of the YMCA from 1972 to 2005. He has also served as chair of the Hamilton/ Burlington YMCA and as national chair of the YMCA.
And he’s really into camp. McCreesh is one of those dyed-in-the-wool camp people that you hear saying things like, “everything I’ve learned, I learned at camp.”
From the outside looking in, camp can seem a minor part of his life. And, in some ways, it is. He estimates that, between years as a camper and staff, he perhaps spent the equivalent of maybe two years at camp, most of it a week at a time.
In other ways, particularly those that really matter, camp is a deceptively major part of his life; he credits camp as the defining feature of his personal and professional development.
“What you learn at camp,” says McCreesh, “is a whole culture. Any successful camp will have a very value-based culture. Different camps may have different cultures, but they are all good, healthy cultures.”
As a child, McCreesh immigrated with his family from England, meeting up with an uncle who had emigrated two years earlier. When they arrived, he says, “my uncle told my mother that, in Canada, this is what you do in the summer, you send your kids off to things called camps. So that’s what she did.”
The first camp he attended was Pine Crest, a YMCA camp, and after two summers, McCreesh began attending another Y camp, Camp Wanakita. The things he learned there informed the person he is today. “I was taught that you always leave the campsite a little bit better than you found it. I translate that to my community, and try to leave it at the end of the day a bit better than I found it in the morning.
“It just has an impact on you,” he says of camp. “The canoeing, the swimming, the arts and crafts, the tripping—those are just the tools you use to get to the hearts and minds of the kids. Camp is just a tool you use to help a person grow, develop, and gain confidence.”
When he became a business leader he was fascinated to see, if not a lot of familiar faces, then at least a lot of familiar histories. “People in leadership positions,” says McCreesh, “invariably they came from a camp leadership background. Whether it was CIBC or other places I’ve worked, people who have great leadership skills, they learned those skills at camp. It’s like, 10 percent of kids go to camp, but 30 percent of the leaders in business, in philanthropy, had a camp leadership experience.”
“If you then go on and become staff, you get significant responsibility very early in life.” Timing, McCreesh believes, is important. Being given responsibility at a young age sends a range of important messages. It’s like having someone tell you that you can be trusted, and have the skills and ability to take on more, at a point when you may be doubting all of that. “All this executive team building that we do, people ask me where I learned that. Well, I learned it by taking 16-year-olds on canoe trips. The principles are all there: working together, team building, confidence, communicating with people, leadership development.
“A huge part of it is self-confidence. I can be an 18-year-old with a cabin of boys, we can go into the bush and still come out with all your fingers and toes.” He pauses, letting the thought hang for a moment. “I can never repay camp for what it gave me.”
Don McCreesh is a prominent voice in camping in Canada, having provided regional, national, and international leadership.