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Valerie Demers, left, and Annabelle Breton, both Grade 12 École secondaire catholique Thériault students, were among the counsellors during the D.A.R.E. Leadership Camp at Camp Bickell this past weekend.

The Drug Abuse Resistance Education program has evolved from its early days when the focus was on warning kids of the risks of using drugs.

Instead, the program is now heavily focused on providing the social skills and self-confidence needed by youths to resist any temptations their peers may throw at them.

“I think for a lot of people who do get into drugs and do get into those wrong behaviours, they’re not doing it because they want to do it. They’re doing it for other people,” said Rick Lemieux, a Timmins Police constable who teaches the D.A.R.E. program and hosts a D.A.R.E. Leadership Camp at Camp Bickell every year.

This past weekend, 88 students from the five high schools in Timmins attended the third-annual D.A.R.E. Leadership Camp at Camp Bickell.

It was a three-day camp which ran from Friday and Sunday. The campers were high school students ranging in age from age 14 to 18.

The aim, Lemieux explained, is to “reinforce what they learned in Grade 6 and 8 with the D.A.R.E. programs.

“We’re always looking for something where we continue that evolution so they get leadership skills when they’re here … We have guest speakers and it’s powerful stuff. We talk about peer pressure.

“After this weekend, I want them to hopefully understand, ‘You know what? I can be me and if I don’t want to do it, I don’t have to do whatever they’re doing. I can be a leader that way and make up my own mind and not fall into those traps,’” said Lemieux.

“The whole thing is about being a leader in your school, in your sports, in your community and working for the things that you want to get in life. If they can walk out of here accepting who they are, and building on their strengths and bettering themselves, that’s all I want out of them for this weekend.”

Valerie Demers, a Grade 12 École secondaire catholique Thériault student, has attended these D.A.R.E. Leadership Camps since they were launched three years ago. The first two years, she attended as a camper. This year, she was one of the camp counsellors.

“Every year we just get more and more inspired because all the guest speakers who come here really open our eyes on mental health, on accepting others, learning how to love yourself and appreciating all the differences that people have,” Demers said.

“When you leave this camp and return to your own individual lives, you have grown as a person and they always tell us to use those skills in our own community.”

Guest speakers this year included Brock McGillis, a gay former semi-professional hockey player originally from Sudbury, who speaks at elementary schools, high schools, and junior hockey teams across Canada about accepting people for their differences and the impacts of using homophobic language.

Annabelle Breton, a Grade 12 Thériault student who also served as a camp counsellors this year, said, “Every single year that we come, it’s been different speakers. Retro Bill comes every year and I find his message is so good and worthy that it’s nice to re-hear and listen to what he has to say.”

Breton said McGillis’s presentation left a strong impression. McGillis, a netminder who played semi-pro in the United Hockey League and a season in the European leagues, shared his experiences as a player, hiding his homosexuality and enduring the discomfort of homophobic remarks that passed as locker room talk.

“He talked about really watching, even if you’re not saying things directly at someone, it can still affect them,” said Breton.

Aside from listening to guest speakers, Lemieux said there was ample opportunity to go swimming or take part in a variety sports and activities.

Between motivational speakers, the students attending the D.A.R.E. Leadership Camp at Camp Bickell this past weekend had the opportunity to take part in a wide variety of activities including Bubble Zuit soccer.

“At the beginning a lot of people come in really shy and they don’t want to participate so much

“But I’ve seen it in the last two years. I know it’s just three days but I see it by the Sunday, they’re more able to get out there and participate and be part of the group. Nobody judges anyone while we’re here … It was tough when I was a teenager but today, it’s even more so with social media, and all that kind of stuff. So we, at this camp, basically want them to be themselves. We tell them don’t change for anybody. Be who you are but also accept everyone for who they are as well.”

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