When Alex Saunders got to the Ontario Educational Leadership Centre (OELC) Wednesday, past, present and future collided.
Saunders was among the first group of teens to attend the Longford Mills camp in 1948.
“It’s almost an unimaginable experience to be rocketed back through all those years,” the Ottawa man said. “To see the young people — the citizens of today, but the adults of tomorrow — is so reassuring. The country is going to be in good hands.”
Saunders, 89, made the trip to the Ramara Township camp to speak to current campers and mark the OELC’s 70th anniversary.
What Saunders learned as a 19-year-old camper at the OELC helped to shape him into the man he became. He carried pride, trust, teamwork and camaraderie to his service with the Royal Canadian Air Force, during his season playing with the CFL’s Ottawa Rough Riders and, later, while working for the government.
He hopes the youth of today, too, learn to value those traits, and he believes their camp experience will help.
“It brings the young people together and it undeniably prompts a dialogue among them — the sharing of hopes, the sharing of wishes and affection with one another,” Saunders said. “And this world sure can use more affection among people.”
The OELC’s offerings have evolved over the past seven decades, but its mission hasn’t changed since the time Saunders and his peers arrived.
“Each of our 16 unique leadership courses focuses on engaging and educating youth to maximize their potential as leaders, encouraging them to become responsible and participating citizens in their schools, communities and beyond,” reads a news release from the centre. “Whether it is through the arts, athletics, school governance or global issues, our courses help over 2,000 Ontario youth every year get in touch with their leader within.”
Saunders had some advice for the dozens of teens who gathered to listen to him speak Wednesday. When they leave camp, he told them, “always look for excellence.”
“Look for what’s important. Follow your heart,” he said. “It’s not painful to be seeking excellence. It’s rewarding. When you do find it, it’s special.”
After his “very emotional” and “reinvigorating” visit, when he was able to speak with the young campers, Saunders said he was heading back to Ottawa feeling positive about the future.
“I see every reason to have all the confidence in the world in the young people today.”
Find out more about the OELC at oelccaso.com.