Simone Sewell goes from camper to counsellor at Brigadoon Village’s Aylesford Lake, N.S., children’s camp
Original Article Posted Here / by Jason Malloy · Lead editor, Annapolis Valley Register / August 4, 2022
AYLESFORD, N.S. — Simone Sewell was in a low place.
The 10-year-old Halifax resident had endured a series of tests during the previous year and a half to determine why she was getting extremely sick. In 2010, doctors diagnosed her with celiac disease. To finally learn what was causing her to become ill was a relief, but also a difficult pill to swallow.
“It’s tough to find out at a young age that you have an illness that you’re going to be stuck with for the rest of your life,” Sewell, now 22, told SaltWire Network.
She remembers being devastated to learn she could no longer have some of her favourite foods because they contained gluten.
“The other really hard thing for me was that I didn’t know anybody else with celiac disease. I felt very alone, and very isolated, and it impacted my mental health quite a bit.”
And she loved every minute of Brigadoon Village.
“Meeting other people who were like me was literally life-changing,” Sewell said. “I had been suffering quite a bit with mental health issues over the two years before, and a lot of that was just feeling isolated and like nobody understood me, so having that opportunity to meet people who literally understood exactly what I was going through was so amazing.”
She returned to school in September feeling empowered and more confident.
“I kind of just carried my camp self with me into the beginning of that school year. It helped me a lot,” she said. “I think a lot of my insecurities stemmed from the fact that I felt that I was alone and that nobody else would understand.”
David Graham, Brigadoon Village’s CEO, said Sewell’s experience is a common sentiment.
“The absolute No. 1 message we hear from families after their children have been to Brigadoon for the first time is that this is the first time my child hasn’t felt alone,” he said. “That’s the message we hear all the time from families.”
Sewell’s first camp was for a weekend, but they expanded into weeklong camps in Year 2. As Sewell continued to attend, she built a support network that she could lean on.
“Whenever I would get sick and nobody else around me would really get it, I would just message them or call them, and they would completely understand.”
Graham said that peer support network is important.
“We’re creating a community for these kids at Brigadoon where they can have conversations that they can’t have with anybody else because everyone at camp understands,” he said. “It’s often that kids will hear the words, ‘Oh, I know,’ because they’ve experienced it.”
About Brigadoon Village
- What – Canada’s largest non-profit pediatric medical camp. Each camp offered at Brigadoon is designed so children living with the same illness or life challenge attend a camp specifically tailored for those living with their needs.
- Where – Aylesford Lake.
- History – The village was built in 2010 with the first 38 campers arriving in 2011 to take part in Camp Guts & Glory for those living with Crohn’s and colitis. It now has more than 30 programs, each designed to accommodate a health condition or life challenge. About 700 campers were expected to attend camp this season.
In those early years, Sewell also saw older girls who were living normal lives and talking about going to university and it gave her hope for the future.
Sewell attended Brigadoon until graduating at 17 in 2017. But that was far from the end of her involvement with the Aylesford Lake camp.
She applied and was hired to join the camp as a counsellor and has worked there every summer since. Looking back, she figured she gradually determined she wanted to be a counsellor and started taking the leaders in training program when she was 14. It connected her with other youth who had chronic illnesses or life challenges.
“That really opened my eyes to just how many different people Brigadoon supports,” she said. “And from that, I gradually figured out that I wanted to be someone who supported those people and I wanted to give back to the community that had done so much for me.”
It is music to the ears of people who work hard to make Brigadoon the special place it is for so many.
Graham said having counsellors with lived experiences is a great asset for the camp.
“It’s a tremendous role model for the kids that are coming through our program when one of the core things that we’re trying to show these kids is that their diagnosis or situation is only a part of who they are,” he said. “And that they can do amazing things in their lives. Having someone like Simone on staff is a validation of that message.”
He has known Sewell since her early days at the camp.
“Seeing her grow into the person she’s become, and the staff member for us she’s become, has been phenomenal to watch.”
Sewell is in her fifth year on staff. She is the leadership co-ordinator and helps with a variety of roles. Sewell said there are a number of counsellors who were once campers.
“We often talk about the magic of camp,” she said. “I think one of the coolest things is as a camper you just feel the magic and you experience it, but when you transition to staff, you get to create that magic.”
Sewell enjoys working at the camp and seeing the children grow from day-to-day and year-to-year.
“I always see myself in them,” she said. “They’re so smart. … They learn from us, but we learn, I’d say, just as much – if not more – from them.”
Sewell graduated this spring with a degree in anthropology and environmental studies from the University of Victoria. She plans to do an honours degree and would like to do research into children living with chronic illnesses and what places like Brigadoon can do for them.
“Simone is a great example of not only the transformation in the kids that are coming to our program but the transformation that’s going to happen in our region because we’re empowering these kids to do things they never thought possible before,” Graham said.
And while Brigadoon is helping a lot of children take important steps, officials know more could benefit from the opportunity.
“We haven’t actually fulfilled the demand yet,” Graham said. “We know we’re only scratching the surface with the kids we can serve right now.”
It is one of the reasons why it expanded earlier this year following a capital campaign, but the camp relies on donors and supporters to help offset the cost for kids to attend camp.
“Our community supports these kids coming to camp and generating these life-changing experiences,” Graham said.
Sewell said she’s appreciative of all the support from her parents, who always believed in her and advocated for her. She is thankful they signed her up for the first camp.
“As soon as I got here, I realized it was the right choice,” she said. “I owe so much to Brigadoon.”