A Network of Paying it Forward: Napi Friendship Association and the Muskoka Foundation

I liked how Earlene, the Youth Coordinator at the Napi Friendship Association, explained to a coworker why we were there teaching photography to the kids.  She started with, “Remember when that man and that woman came in here with their little kids and they were talking about their photography…”.  Our volunteer experience in Pincher Creek, Alberta started 2,500 km away in Amado, Arizona at the Overland Expo where we met Jay and Alice, founders of the Muskoka Foundation.  When I heard Jay speak on a panel about how they were trying to help travelers “do good as they go”, I was excited.  That’s us!  We do that!  We connected with Jay, Alice, and Brian later that day to talk about what type of opportunities they could connect us to.

Our campsite for most of the time, at Beaver Mines Campground

One of the Muskoka Foundation’s signature programs is a photography workshop for youth in villages and indigenous communities along popular overlanding routes.  It’s a win-win-win type of program in which the kids get to learn a new skill, the village gets a chance to earn income through the sale of calendars made from the kids’ photos, and the travelers get to meet the local community and learn more about their culture.  We were excited to take on a project that would require more responsibility and allow us a lot of independence.

A view from Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and place of great significance for the Piikani First Nation

Jay and Alice had met Earlene earlier that year as they traveled through Alberta in their EcoRoamer.  They were introduced through a couple of fellow travelers, Doug and Karen, who live in Crowsnest Pass, 30 minutes west of Pincher Creek.  We followed in their tire tracks, climbing up the hill to Doug and Karen’s to learn about the area before starting the workshop.  Doug is a biologist with the Alberta Conservation Association and could share detailed information about the local environment and camping opportunities.  Karen works at the women’s center in Pincher Creek and was more familiar with the women and youth in the community and what types of challenges they faced.


Jay humoring me as I talk to the kids about framing a portrait

So this is how we found ourselves in the basement of the Napi Friendship Association with five Piikani teenagers talking about photography.  We were supported by a network of other travelers and people who work with youth.  Without this support we wouldn’t have made it through the week.  You learn a lot about yourself on a trip like this and we learned that we are not good at working with teenagers.  In fact, working with teenagers is the most stressful thing that we have done yet, besides getting Jay out of Death Valley after being burned.  They were good kids, but trying to keep a group of 11-15 year olds focused for four hours, three summer days in a row was a challenge we had no experience in tackling.  The workshop is designed for 5 days with shorter classroom time on each day and that added to the challenge.

heading out for our first photo walk in Pincher Creek

It was fun to see the kids’ excitement when they got to use the cameras for the first time.  It was cool to be accepted into this community, in which we were the only non-native people in the Napi Friendship Association building.  We welcomed the challenge of doing skilled work again, figuring out how to set up the room and present the material.  It was awesome to see the kids start using some of their new knowledge to critique each other’s photos or to decide which of their own photos were the best.  I enjoyed the chance to share something I am passionate about and reflect on my own photography.  It was also inspiring to be included within the tribe of travelers that Muskoka connects throughout the world.  That said, it was a very stressful week.

kids at Muskoka Foundation photography workshop

Seth and Jesse trying to capture a photo of a bird on our photo walk

We hope to work with the Muskoka Foundation again along our travels.  If we are ever back in Pincher Creek I would definitely drop in to say hi at the Napi Friendship Association.  However, Jay and I are planning to avoid any positions of responsibility involving teenagers again.  Lesson learned.


2 responses to “A Network of Paying it Forward: Napi Friendship Association and the Muskoka Foundation

  1. Good for you for testing those waters. I suspect the teens gained more than you know.

    • Thanks, I hope the teens benefitted from our time there. Maybe we’ll work up to this type of volunteering again in the future and be better prepared.

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