“My parents say that Lake Joe saved me because I was angry and miserable when my vision changed," says Derek Thompson. "But once I was at Lake Joe, those feelings dissipated, and my maturity started to develop.”
Nearly 35 years later, Derek Thompson still remembers his first visit to CNIB Lake Joe.
“I was new to vision loss, and I didn’t know anyone who was blind. Andy Murie (former manager at CNIB in Belleville) recommended I check out Lake Joe,” recalls Derek. “I am so thankful he gave my parents that direction and that they were willing to drop a 15-year-old off at camp for six weeks.”
During his first summer at Lake Joe, Derek met Shawn Dale, one of his closest friends.
“Shawn and I were roommates. He was a young punk with long hair and cut-off jean shorts, and I was the guy with a big afro and new shoes who listened to R&B and Motown,” says Derek. “We ended up swapping music, and that was the foundation of our friendship. To this day, we still send each other music from various genres on a weekly basis!”
Derek returned to CNIB Lake Joe as staff for the next five summers – moving up in the ranks from counsellor in training to senior counsellor.
“I’ve been a Child and Youth worker for 22 years, and I still say that the best job I’ve ever had was when I was a camp counsellor at Lake Joe,” says Derek. “I still use all of the leadership skills I acquired at camp. My time as a counsellor put me on a path of community service.”
As a counsellor, Derek learned two-hand manual (a method of communication for people who are Deafblind).
“I was fascinated with this communication skill, and I’d ask the intervenors to teach me more, so I could engage with clients,” says Derek. “When I moved to Toronto at 19, I became a Deafblind intervenor because of the skills I learned and practiced at Lake Joe.”
Today, he still works as an intervenor at CNIB Lake Joe every summer.
“When you take the time to sit with someone for 10 minutes and really connect with them and hear their story, it’s life-changing,” he adds. “You don’t know if it’s their first time at camp, their last time or their best time. You just don’t know the impact you’re leaving with someone.”
In 2016, Derek was formally asked to become a member of CNIB Lake Joe's advisory board.
“To me, CNIB Lake Joe is a world of endless possibilities. What’s something you’ve always wanted to do that people said you couldn’t do? Or what’s that thing you’ve always thought ‘oh, that won’t work for me because I’m blind’? Whatever that is, it can be done at Lake Joe,” says Derek. “From cooking to camping or learning to physically navigate nature trails, to water skiing – if you have the courage to say, ‘I’ll try it,’ you can do anything.”
He recounts a story about a camper who always wanted to learn how to waterski but never had the opportunity because of other people’s assumptions and fears about Deafblindness.
“When she got to Lake Joe, we gave her the training, and she was able to get up on the skis. The staff took pictures for her to bring home to show her family,” says Derek.
CNIB Lake Joe is more than a physical space – it’s a close-knit community.
“It’s really the relationships that are built within that keep calling you back,” says Derek.
He reminisces about a funny prank his late friend, Bill Vastis, played on him.
“I always shied away from participating in the talent show, but Bill would phone Lake Joe from Mississauga and tell the front desk to put me on the list for the talent show without me knowing!” he says. “And now, in his honour, it’s my privilege to take part in the talent show when I can.”
Every year, Derek and his family head to CNIB Lake Joe to make memories.
“My kids (ages 14 and 16) fell in love with the place. They’ve made friends and expanded their own skills, and now they want to work there,” says Derek. “Their exposure to people with diverse needs, I believe, has made them more compassionate and empathetic people.”
When asked to describe CNIB Lake Joe to others, Derek says it's all about opportunity.
“Whether it’s a personal or professional experience, relaxation or adventure, CNIB Lake Joe provides you with the opportunity to expand who you are.”