‘I Am Awesome’ retreat going strong

Ken Kellar

The clouds had only just begun to loom in the distance on Friday afternoon, but Renée Martin-Brown was still thankful for the weather.
“We’re grateful for the sunshine. It has rained on us for years and years,” Martin-Brown shared.
“We had one nice year here where it was beautiful and all the trees had fully changed their colours and they hadn’t fallen yet, it was gorgeous. God gave me that one so I would keep going,” she added.
“Last year it was awful, it was so bad, it was like a tsunami every day,” recalled Martin-Brown.
The “us” Martin-Brown was referring to was the “I Am Awesome (And I Know It)” self-esteem retreat for young women, a now-annual event held at Sunny Cove Camp last Thursday and Friday (Sept. 19-20).
The retreat provides an opportunity for girls aged 11-16 from across the region to take part in arts-based workshops that are designed to teach them different coping skills, as well as to boost their sense of self-esteem and bolster friendships among the campers.
“I want them to know that they all have a gift to offer the world, that they can find a way to express themselves in a positive way,” Martin-Brown explained.
“Maybe they don’t know that when they are feeling down and out that they can journal it, or they can practice yoga and meditation, or that they can draw or that there’s a positive outlet and way to do that.”
As a local piano and voice teacher, Martin-Brown’s background is in music, which she said is the reason that the retreat focuses on arts-based workshops like songwriting, creative writing, painting and yoga.
She shared that when she was growing up she relied on playing piano to help cope with challenges in her life.
“I just told the girls: ‘I went to 13 schools, I was constantly the new kid, I was always making friends, and that’s exhausting,'” Martin-Brown said.
“I always had something to come home to and know that even in my worst moment, I was good at something that nobody could take away from me, they couldn’t move it away from me, so I think that’s why we do it arts-based.”
Part of the workshop experience is to also expose the girls to different artistic mediums they might not have considered before in the hopes that they may be able to connect with it and use it the way Martin-Brown did her love of piano, while also being able to lean on the relationships they make at the retreat.
“We can offer you a community of women who can offer you support,” she said.
“And if we don’t have the answers, we will try to provide you with a place where you can go if you need help with your mental health, if you need help making connections with finding something you’re interested in in the community, things like that.
“We try to give them resources and tools, and then the workshops to figure out what makes them tick. That’s it. That’s the basis of it,” added Martin-Brown.
It’s a system that appears to be working. Martin-Brown said that the retreat this year had between 65 and 70 girls from across Northwestern Ontario in attendance, some coming from as far away as Terrace Bay and Ear Falls, which gives each of the girls a chance to make far-reaching connections.
“They’re regional; they come from all over the place, which is cool because they get to meet kids that they don’t meet,” Martin-Brown said.
“Even in Fort Frances, some of these kids play hockey against each other. They know of each other but they actually don’t have the opportunity to get to know each other because they go to different schools. It’s pretty cool.”
The participants of the retreat evidently agree. All of the spots at the camp filled up within 30 hours of registration opening back in May, and Martin-Brown noted that the distribution of new to returning campers is an even split.
“It’s almost 50-50,” she said.
“We encourage our alumni to come back because they are the best tangible way to see if our program is doing anything. Are they better than they were the year before? Are they making better decisions? Are they putting themselves out there? Are they taking on leadership roles? And are they okay? How are they doing? And some of them we’ve had since 2014.”
Harleigh Brow-Rose is one such long-time attendee of the “I Am Awesome” retreat. Now in her sixth year of attending the retreat (having missed only the inaugural 2013 retreat), the apprentice mechanic from Thunder Bay said the camp helped her find something that she was passionate about.
“I’ve always been one to struggle with self-esteem and I was trying to figure out who I was and what made me want to get up in the morning,” she said.
“I came the first year and I loved it, I loved everything about it. Then we did a writing workshop and I really took off with writing and I’ve been a writer ever since.”
Brow-Rose explained that her writing provided her a means of expressing herself, something the retreat taught her directly.
“I learned that I’m not like everybody else and when I go to talk about my feelings I can’t do it the same way everybody else does,” she said.
“Most people can talk about them, I can’t talk about them. They all get written down and if I want to show you what I’m feeling, I’m going to show you through a journal because I can’t physically tell you.”
Samantha Stone is another longtime participant at the retreat. She said the camp provides girls with supports and direction they might not otherwise have access to.
“I feel like if this wasn’t here, there’d be so many girls right now around this area just kind of sitting there, not knowing what to do with life,” Stone said.
“I feel like this camp literally shows people how to be loved, how to feel loved, and how to find your passion. Like Renée said, she built this camp because she loved singing and that helped her be who she was,” Stone added.
“I love art, I love writing, Harleigh’s been writing for like, ever. I follow her Instagram page of her writing and stuff and this is one of the reasons she writes. Some of the girls really love art and they come here and they’re just like ‘yeah, I want to do art, this is something I’m good at,'” she continued.
“It makes them feel better so I feel like if this wasn’t a thing, then girls would just feel lost,” added Stone.
Isabelle Meeks wasn’t old enough to attend the retreat last year, but was able to register and attend for the first time this year. On her second day of camp ever, she shared why she thought it mattered.
“It’s all about self-esteem and self-esteem is very important,” Meeks said.
“And I think everyone should be able to believe in themselves and think they’re awesome.”
Martin-Brown isn’t exactly sure what the future holds for “I Am Awesome,” but said it will likely continue for as long as there is both the interest from the girls who attend, and the support from the women who help to run it.
“I don’t really know where we’re going,” she said.
“I didn’t really have a vision when we started, but there’s a need and my team keeps coming back . . . They don’t leave me. Maybe they’re scared, or maybe they just really believe in the program, or maybe it’s a bit of both, I don’t know.”