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From Concrete Streets to Wooded Wonderland: Summer Camp Transforms the Life of Downtown Eastside Youth

Vancouver, BC—Nestled in a block of grey concrete buildings in the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is a small coffee shop with a velvet matador painting on the wall and no bars on the windows. “That’s the first thing I changed when I started the business in this space a few months ago,” laughs the shop’s 18 year old owner, Hannah Walker. “We took down the bars, and the entire storefront suddenly felt warmer and more open.” Since then, locals – from support workers to local families to fashion designers and community members of all descriptions – have been discovering the new space, and each other. 
The Velvet Matador coffee shop has a relaxed vibe and genuine warmth, traits shared with its owner. Growing up in an intentional Christian community in the Downtown Eastside, Hannah was surrounded by a nurturing family throughout her childhood – important support in a neighbourhood with a reputation for extreme poverty, drug addiction, and mental illness. And an influential part of her life for the last nine years has been an intentional break from the often intense Downtown Eastside streets, during summers at Camp Sunrise on the Sunshine coast. 
When Hannah was nine years old, Union Gospel Mission sponsored her through the UGM Summer Camp program, which helps 750 kids every summer who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford camp. “My parents have five other kids, and to send all of us to camp would have been a huge expense. It just wouldn’t have happened.” Joining kids in need from around Metro Vancouver, camp was a place where Hannah could mature in her Christian faith, learn to value community even more deeply, and just have some fun closer to nature. When her love for camp transformed into a position on camp staff, she ended up working with other kids sent by UGM to Camp Sunrise. “It was great to connect with kids from my neighbourhood in the camp setting, away from the challenges they face here. Then when I saw them back home again, I could continue to be a listening ear and helping hand.” 
Hannah plans to return to camp this summer, and is starting to train people from the neighbourhood to run the shop while she’s away. For Hannah, it’s all part of ethos of the Velvet Matador. “I want this place to give life to the community, whether that’s as a venue for the arts or music, or as a place where people from the neighbourhood can get training and skills.” 
Hannah is tangible proof that camp really can impact a young life in a way that, in turn, can help transform a community. She credits her time at camp for her work ethic and strong team building skills. More importantly, she says she learnt a lot from what it means to be valued. “Camp is always a really good place for encouraging people and letting them know that their work is appreciated and important. I think that’s a key point for helping them pursue goals they believe in.”
Helping kids feel valued is precisely what UGM aims for in the program. Jenna Amundson, UGM’s Camp and Families Outreach Worker, has seen the change that camp can make: “When I drop the kids off at camp there is always one or two who are outside the group, with their hands in their pockets and their heads down. It’s amazing to come back at the end of the week and see them running around with the other kids, taking pictures for keepsakes and genuinely happy. It can really be a turning point for these kids. After experiencing the love and Christian community at camp, they come home with more confidence in themselves and hope for the future.”  
Hannah has a clear focus for the Velvet Matador. “I’d like this to be a space for local business, local economy, local arts,” she says, “and provide, in the process, a safe place for people to just come and be themselves.” 
UGM’s Kid’s Camp Program is made possible by the generosity of donors. To learn how you can help, visit or call  1.888.347.4673. A donation of $45 will send a child to camp for a day, while a $315 gift will send a child to camp for an entire week. In addition to camp, each child receives a new back pack full of camping supplies, and UGM staff help to coordinate follow-up events for the children throughout the year. 
Union Gospel Mission has been reaching hungry, hurting and homeless men, women, youth and children for nearly 70 years. Through its 8 locations in Metro Vancouver and the city of Mission, UGM provides counseling, education, safe housing, and alcohol and drug recovery to those struggling with poverty, homelessness and addiction. The heart of the mission is to demonstrate God’s transforming love, ease the burden of the most vulnerable, rebuild the lives of the broken and offer dignity to those who feel cast aside. UGM is a proud member of the Canadian Council of Christian Charities. To find out more, visit
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