Inclement weather forced football-hungry youngsters into Mistissini’s arena during the first day of the Fourth Annual Football Camp August 13-15, but that turned out to be only a minor setback as over 250 kids came out for days two and three that were conducted outside under a sinister-looking but cooperative sky.

Children from the ages of 5 to 18 tossed the football around with Montreal Alouette players such as Etienne Boulay and Devone Claybrooks. The girls learned from the Als’ cheerleaders and even put on a little show for everyone.

Former CFL Ottawa Renegades Coach Joe Paopao also made his return after a one-year absence.

“The first thing I’m hoping they’re learning is how to respect themselves and to boost their self esteem so they know that they can do anything they want,” said Director of Youth Healing Services Gordon Hudson, who started the camp with a phone call to Coach Paopao over four years ago.

Hudson told the Nation that he has seen a lot of differences since the camp first started.

“There is a lot more interaction,” he said. “Visitors come up and they don’t duck their heads, they engage. Did that happen four or five years ago? I don’t think so. You introduce the kids to new things and they embrace it. These kids are dreaming again and it’s incredible.”

He talked about the problems some of the kids face every day, including abuse at home, bullying and low self esteem. Hudson said that although it is a once-a-year camp, the impact on the kids is enormous.

“It never ceases to amaze me what happens from the start to when it finishes. You really touch the kids,” he said. “You have kids coming up and sharing stories that make it known that this is worthwhile and we’re doing the right thing,” said Hudson, who wishes to thanks the Cree Health Board and people like Diane Reid, Lisa Petagumskum and Mabel Herodier for their continued support.

The return of Coach Paopao, who was a big part of the first two camps before the Ottawa Renegades folded, was heralded as a huge bonus. He was the first person Hudson called and he never hesitated to come up north.

“Gord said we need some help,” said Paopao. “So a lot of guys from the Ottawa area, where Gord is from, came out to help. It was a big network of friends. I knew Gord needed help and I think it has been a big success and hopefully it continues every year.

“I have my own kids that are in college, so it’s easy to tell these kids to hang in there, some days are better than others. You have to trust your parents and people that care about you. Sometimes it’s hard for them to understand that, but if they see you with them year in and year out, those words carry some weight.

The camp has already paid off in a big way for youngsters like Conrad Mianscum and Justin Heritage. They attended the first camp four years ago and they were hooked. Heritage is currently playing for Lower Canada College in Montreal and Mianscum has been suiting up with a Chibougamau team for the past two years.

“I learned things that I thought I didn’t need to learn,” said Heritage. “I learned how to run with the ball properly and to kick. I also learned how to run accurately and fast.” He comes back to his home community every summer, partially because he doesn’t want to miss the camp.

He realized the opportunity presented to him at 12 years old and he quickly fell in love with the sport. Now a tight end with LCC, Heritage one day hopes to play professional football in either the CFL or NFL.

“I’d love to play pro football. It’s one of my dreams,” he said. “I’m still not sure what I want to do with my life, but that would definitely be up there.

“I only started football when I was 12 and I had to learn everything,” he continued. “They [the other kids] are learning at a very young age so they’ll have a head start. They can take it somewhere and it’s great. I think it’s great what the Alouettes are doing here.”

Conrad Mianscum, also 16, had a similar tale. He didn’t know anything about football four years ago, but soon found out what he was missing. He has been playing with a Midget A’ team in Chibougamau for the last two years and he was even named team captain this year.

“I just did my best and worked hard,” said the soft-spoken Mianscum, who also acted as a guide when the players went out to fish on Mistissini Lake. “I’m hoping to play college football. I have one year left here.”

He plays defensive tackle and right offensive guard. Last year his team finished with a 2-4 record, but he hopes to improve on that this year and make the playoffs.

Als defensive tackle Devone Claybrooks welcomed the eyeopening experience when he was asked to volunteer. He and his mother run the Devone Claybrooks Foundation, a charity organization that feeds needy kids, gives toys out at Christmas and awards scholarships to kids.

“To be able to bring football and give kids hope and the possibility of getting better or to be able to just find an avenue to escape from other things by getting away from the problems that they have, even if it’s just for two hours while they’re out here, is a great blessing.”

Claybrooks’s mother was addicted to crack. He grew up in a foster home before his grandparents adopted and raised him. He has since moved on, but that experience, which included his mother being imprisoned for three years, taught him how to summon his inner strength.

“It’s possible to dream big and follow your dreams, no matter what anyone else says,” he said. “All kids are the same, they just want hope and to know somebody else cares about them and wants them to be successful. You want to pick the kids up and let them know that the sky is the limit. Don’t be scared to reach for that star, even if it looks like it’s far away.”

After he was briefed on the alarming social ills that plague the community, he hoped that his presence and that of the other professionals would encourage the kids.

“You can do it and make it, no matter what the suicide or alcoholism rate is. None of those things really matter because it’s every individual battle that makes up those numbers and you don’t have to be that statistic.”

With all the positive messages and results of this Cree Health Board initiative in the past four years, it was no wonder that even a little bit of rain and an overcast sky couldn’t dampen the spirits of the Cree youth.