It’s early afternoon at Haywire Bay. The sun is shining, the lake is glistening, and the newest batch of LEAP (Leadership Ecology Adventure Program) participants is learning how to start a campfire.
The batch is diverse. Twenty-four students from across Canada work in groups to create a flame.
In a couple of days’ time, after they have learned leadership and survival skills, the groups will split off to complete their own five-day journeys by canoe, sailboat, or stand-up paddleboard. Afterward, they will reconvene to celebrate and share what they have learned.
“We connect kids with healthy things, in healthy places, with healthy activities,” explained program coordinator Ryan Barfoot.
LEAP is School District 47’s eco-adventure summer camp for high school students. It teaches youth leadership skills and life lessons through hands-on experience.
Barfoot is the mastermind behind the program. He said it was originally meant simply to introduce local youth to their own backyard.
The first LEAP camp, a one-off with only a dozen students, was held in the summer of 2007. Since then, the program has blossomed. Now, four or more groups of high school students participate every summer.
Each session is specialized. Currently, the three categories offered are LEAP Voyageur, a canoe trip with a focus on Canadian history, LEAP Aboard, an ecological boat tour of the Salish Sea, and LEAP SUP, an innovative stand-up paddleboard program unique to the area.
Staff build the program on the three elements in its name. Adventure, Barfoot admitted, is the main one. “Adventure is the canvas that we paint the whole program on,” he said.
Leadership through real life experience also plays an essential role. Each journey is divided into tribes and each day a different tribe is in charge.
“They are literally leading everything,” said Barfoot. “They decide what time to get up, how everyone will be fed, how to keep everyone safe...even the designated areas for going to the bathroom.”
Barfoot calls it the embodiment of theory. “It’s learning leadership by doing leadership,” he said.
Although some see the curriculum as innovative, Barfoot said it has roots in human tradition. “This is one of the oldest curriculums known to humankind,” he explained. The program is based on the cross-cultural right of passage, where a child becomes an adult.
“We try to embrace that idea,” he said, “and in order for kids to do that, they need to be given a heck of a lot of responsibility.”
This mixture of tradition and innovation makes for a unique experience—and provides unexpected challenges. Currently, LEAP is the only high school leadership program in Canada that travels by stand-up paddleboard.
“It’s interesting developing systems for something that’s really not being done,” said Barfoot. Planning, he continued, takes long hours of brainstorming with a touch of trial and error.
Program staff has given workshops on their curriculum throughout the province. “The school district is definitely recognized provincially as being a leader in outdoor learning,” he said.
Though LEAP now welcomes students from as far away as Japan and Holland, the decision to open up the program came gradually. Various factors were considered, including out-of-town interest, declining enrolment in local schools and the possibility of generating tourism.
Now, they receive upward of 300 applications a year from around the world. “We’re expanding, but we can’t really keep up with the demand at this point in time,” said Barfoot. Locals, however, are given first priority.
Feedback for the program has been completely positive. One doesn’t have to look far to see the results can be life-changing. Matt Emig, whose nature nickname is Treebeard, participated in the first LEAP. The next year, he was back as a program facilitator and hasn’t missed a summer since.
“I always refer to it as my training for life,” he said. “You’re thrust into a community that you quickly have to learn to work and communicate with.”
Emig said it’s amazing for him to see how the program has grown over the years. Being both a student and a teacher has shown him the value of real-life learning.
Participants agree. When asked what she thought of the program, Olivia Sprague’s eyes lit up. After hearing about it from a friend, the Vancouverite decided to apply right away.
“It’s amazing,” she exclaimed. “The scenery is absolutely gorgeous...As soon as I got here, I said, ‘This is the place for me.’”