Katima-Life: How 6 Months Changed My Whole Life

Dear Readers,

***This is something I had written a couple months back, and kind of forgotten about it. I made some edits, sorted and added photos:

Getting over a horrible hangover, and the day almost slipped past me, not fully paying attention to the days date. It is September 7th, my 4 year anniversary of the day I started Katimavik, the day I found myself on the other side of the country with the most random group of people you could imagine. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t recognize my surroundings, and I just completed a 9-hour journey from the west cost to the east coast. My mind was fucked to the extreme.

Okay, sorry, let me begin again. When I was 18 years old, I signed up for the Katimavik volunteer program here in Canada. I was about to graduate high school, and I just realized that I didn’t want to go to college to study culinary arts. I had the grades, the recommendation letters from teachers, a scholarship, and plenty of reasons to go through with my original plan. I had everything sorted out, everything was perfect. Except, I didn’t want it, that was not the life I wanted. I secretly wanted to something else, something unexpected, chaos, uncertainty, and the chance to live a completely different life far outside of my too small town.

This is why my guidance counselor recommended the Katimavik program. 6 months volunteering in different parts of the country, and a whole new experience. I had no better plan, and it was my best bet for buying me more time to figure out the mess that is my life.

I was nervous, I was actually really frightened, because for the first time in my life I was going to leave Hazelton behind and chase something that I couldn’t see in front of me. It was a good kind of scared. It sent adrenaline through my body, something that you don’t get in Hazelton. My small town was about as boring as it gets. It’s the same people living the same lives they have always lived. Nobody wanted adventure, nobody wanted to discover something new, to test new waters, go running with the madness, and to ultimately, dance with the devil.

I had found out that I was going to move to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. Can you believe it? The first place I’m supposed to move to was going to be exactly on the other end of the country. I was nervous, I was to fly the whole way there, and I had never been on an airplane before, I never had to say goodbye before. It was strange, I had to look at my sleepy small town one last time, just to be able to savor the day that I was going off on an adventure and leaving Hazelton behind. One last beautiful golden day in northern BC. Now, me being the first one in my family to actually leave the town, it was kind of a big deal. My mother cried, friends had acted like they weren’t sure when they would see me again (the answer was in about 6 months). But, nonetheless, I still felt an ache in my heart when I said goodbye to my brothers and my little sister, and our good friend Kathy for driving me to the airport (my mother couldn’t stand to see me off, so she stayed home). I think it was because, somewhere deep inside, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to come back. Sure, I’d be able to return in 6 months time, but it had to do with that I subconsciously knew I was never going to be the same. Everything was going change.

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I cannot begin to describe the feeling of what it was like to board an airplane for the first time in my life, to watch the ones I love shrink away into the fading light of the blood red sun, and to see the glorious mountains laying out the land. My first plane ride experience was absolutely amazing. I just wish I didn’t have to fly over 9 hours to get to Labrador. But, it was an adventure, and it was also the first time I had a taste of culture shock. Standing in the Vancouver airport with so many different kind of people going this way and that. I couldn’t handle it for a while. It was all too much. I had so many questions. Where were they going? Where did they come from? Are they running away from something or catching up to something amazing in another part of the world? I was lost in my head for the whole journey and I wasn’t sure if I would ever get to Labrador. Hazelton seemed like a life time away already. But, I did get to land in Labrador, eventually. I had no idea what to make of it. I was jetlagged, as I couldn’t sleep on the plane, up for over 24 hours and the east coast is 4 hours ahead. It was so surreal. I was with random strangers, and the entire scenery threw me off. Absolutely nothing was familiar in my life at that moment. And I freaking loved it.

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The first few days of Katimavik were kind of a blur. Strange faces became less strange, and the bed I laid in started feel more comfy, and the beautiful landscape before me was being burned into my mind forevermore. I was loving it all. Here I was, living in a tiny house filled with 11 other people I never met before, and going out meeting the community, see all the amazing organizations that this isolated town had to offer. It was just too good to be true.

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Now, I should explain about what the program actually is. Katimavik (which means “meeting place” in  the Inuit native language) was founded back in 1977, and it was created to educate the youth and teach them an alternative lifestyle, about community building and teamwork. The program has hit some snags in its 37 years, sometimes having it’s funding shut down by the government, but it always bounces back as too many people care about this program to let it go to waste. I have been one of the fortunate ones that got to take part in it. And Happy Valley-Goose Bay was an amazing place to call home. I’ve never been in an environment quite like that one. I’m from a small town, born and raised, but it was different in Labrador. The scenery is different, mountains are way off in the distant, sand is absolutely everywhere in that town. But still, one of the most beautiful places I’ve had the pleasure to call home.

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Even though it’s been about 4 years since I’ve lived there, I miss it all. You don’t know how amazing that place could be until you have been there yourself. And the fact I got to experience it all with new and exciting people such as my Katima-Family (In Katimavik, you add “Katima” in front of everything. Don’t ask why, we don’t even know. It just happens.) The first week or so was pretty awkward, as we all were careful about what we said or did, so to not offended anyone else. But, living in such a small place with so many people, it was bound to happen sooner or later. Even so, we talked about it, we all would say our piece on the matter and figure out a way to make it work. It was kind of beautiful.

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Goose Bay feels like a dream to me, about how such a beautiful place could exist, and the amazing people that lived there. While we all lived in Goose Bay, we had job placements, non-for-profit organizations that we would volunteer our time there. I originally wanted the job at Birch Brook, as it involved being outside in nature all day, and coming from the wilderness of BC, I was used to that, and in fact, craved the feeling. But, instead, I got to work for the local S.P.C.A, and I honestly wouldn’t have had it any other way. What more could a person ask for? I had the opportunity to work with amazing people, got to play with all the puppies we got there, and took the older dogs on walks everyday. It was sort of paradise for myself, as I missed having pets, and dogs and cats are amazing companions. Now, I could go on and on and on forever about the animals I worked with, and how each one had different personalities, and the moments I had fallen in love with each and every single one of them, but that’s just too much. But, I will mention Hocus and Scully. These two dogs meant the most to me. They had a special bond with each other, and depended to get each other through. They did sort of have a give and take relationship. Hocus would give, Scully would take. But, they always spent every day with each other, and it was beautiful. Emily and I would always take those two on walks, they had energy to burn to the max. We’d run, trek through wild trails and crazy landscapes and they would still be on the go. It was an amazing experience to work there and would definitely take the opportunity again if I had the chance.

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The most unfortunate thing about the program is that it can’t last forever. All too soon, we had to say goodbye to the town, the beautiful human beings, and the breath taking landscape. But, I like to think we all made the best of our time there. We volunteered out time to great organizations such as the SPCA, Birch Brook, Friendship Centre, the local library, and the school. We made almost every single day an adventure, searching high and wide of what places we could explore, we made traditional meals of Labrador, learned their history, discovered their culture, became added family to some of the locals, and danced underneath the Northern Lights. I have absolutely no regrets from my time spent in that all too beautiful town. And hope that someday, I will return again.

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74066_458088615317_6340863_n73129_458087475317_1513074_nAnd so, after 3 months in Goose Bay, we had to pack our bags  continue onto our next destination, which was to be Orillia, Ontario. We were going from isolated small town, to a much more populated town next to the big city, Toronto. It was culture shock all over again. We were all used to the quiet, peacefulness of the North. I guess, for some of us, the move felt as a big mistake. Others had wished to stay in Goose Bay, they thought Orillia was a horrible place to put Katimavik volunteers. I had to disagree. I guess, because I’m from the north, I didn’t mind it so much. I had found that I enjoy the noise, the hustle and bustle of society. It was new, different, and something great to learn from. I was born in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and here I was living the urban lifestyle. It was actually quite exciting.

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Living in Orillia was a totally different experience for us. Somehow, we all started to drift apart. We hung out only with certain group members, and group time came far and in between of our daily lives. I think this was the part of the program where we had to learn about who we are as individuals, Goose Bay was all about being a member of the community. This time around we all had new work placements, and I had scored the job at the Orillia Art & History Museum. I had thought that this would be an interesting job position for me, as I wanted to learn more about the history of the town, and the local Aboriginals.

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Like I mentioned before, this part of the program really seemed to be the time to rediscover who we were as individuals, and that’s pretty much what I did. I was going through something horribly painful deep inside. You see, I came from a reservation up in the northwestern part of BC, and things weren’t exactly diamonds there. I grew up surrounded by alcoholism, drug addiction, abuse, and I was suffering from a severe manic depression. That’s all I really knew, and for the first time in my life I was learning that it was okay to talk about it, to cry, to feel happiness. I had learned that just because everyone else I knew had lived that life, didn’t mean that I had to. I could dream of something better, I could be better, and I shouldn’t have to feel guilty about it. It took a long time for me to finally talk about the horrible things that happened to me, to open up, to accept help and to realize that I don’t have to keep doing things on my own anymore. There were some bad times, moments where I wasn’t sure if this was the right thing for me. I had grown bitter for certain things, I was moody, and I just wasn’t sure about my life. But, I didn’t give up. I knew that if I quit the program now, I would regret it for the rest of my life. And, I am so glad that I didn’t. I’m glad I came out on the other side, stuck through it to the end, as I grew and understood things more the longer I stayed.

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253481_10150200375050318_3955465_nI got to discover the Ojibwe natives in that area, experience a traditional sweat lodge on reservation land, teach wonderfully creative children about art and history, explored the ruff and tuff city that is Toronto. I lived and helped out on a family farm with the greatest family you could imagine with amazing landscapes, I sat up late at night to watch the lunar eclipse, and stared out into the bright lights of the town and dreamed of the amazing things I could accomplish if I just gave it a little try. I had learned to stand up for what I believed in, not give into racism. Even though it all wasn’t sunshine and rainbows in Orillia, I had an amazing time, and glad of what I accomplished with the discovery of my identity.

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199178_10150117000240318_5117824_nBut, once again, goodbye was upon us, and this time, it was going to really hurt. We all had to say goodbye and go down separate paths in life. I was to head back to my home town in Hazelton, away from everybody else, and none of us were sure of when would be the next time we would all see each other again. I thought I was okay with it, I thought I was fine and accepted saying goodbye. Except, as it turned out, I wasn’t in the least bit. My chest felt like it was closing in, my heart was seizing up, and there wasn’t enough breath to breathe in. I was panicking. I didn’t want to say goodbye, this was my Katima-Family, the crazy people I loved. We spent 6 months together, and learned so much from each other and I didn’t want it to end. Unfortunately, it did though. I had found myself on a plane all on my own, with goodbye fresh in my eyes, heading back to a life I didn’t recognize anymore. I was all alone for the first time in 6 months. I wasn’t going back home as the same person I was before. I had changed and evolved as a human being in ways that I couldn’t have imagined. I was scared that that was going to be it, no more adventure, back to the sleepy town that never changes.  But, as my plane landed in the Smithers Airport, and I saw my beautiful mother and our good friend Kathy, I made a silent promise to myself. I promised that I was never gonna stop changing, to continue to grow and evolve in ways that I’ll never truly know how. I told myself that I’ll always keep an open mind, go for the unexpected, befriend the beautiful weirdos in life, challenge myself to be better, be greater than I was before. This world is far too huge to stay the same boring person for the rest of eternity. Amazing people have come and gone in my life, and it’s sad and completely shitty. But, as I learned from Katimavik, is that they’ll always be there, even if you don’t see them all the time. And there are others out there that will bring true happiness that you never knew of, as long as you give yourself the chance to open up and look at the world in a different perspective. So, I say, get yourself out of the “norm”, go for the unexpected, and always live your life as if this moment will never come around again. Life is far too short to play it safe, to let the expectations of society control you. Find the others, dream of new possibilities, and to always say to yourself “why not?”. That, ladies and gentlemen, has truly made all the difference in my life.

–Travis Simms

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9 thoughts on “Katima-Life: How 6 Months Changed My Whole Life

  1. I participated in 07/08 and was one of the lucky ones to get a full 9 months. From Welland, ON to Dalhousie,NB to St. Anne, MB my group of 11 came together and fell apart and then knit ourselves back together agai. We learned, laughed and cried and I miss my katima-family daily, this program changed the course of my life as well. Thank you for the wonderful reminder of those crazy days!

  2. Thank you.
    Thank you for this beautiful piece of literature that was as close as it gets to summing up the madness that is Katimavik. I have tried many, many, many times to put what my experience was into words. When I found myself sobbing while reading your blog, I knew you had hit it on the head.
    I still miss my Katimafamily every single day. Slightly over 3 years ago on January 4th, 2012 was when I decided to ‘get a life’ and it changed everything about me.
    People do not understand what they did when this program was shut down after our rotation.

    I could talk and reminisce for days about all of this. But it’s a simple comment. It all goes back to me wanting to say thank you to another human being who took a huge risk and changed their life forever.

    -kristen

  3. And that’s why Katimavik is more than the volunteering aspect. That is also why the politicians just didn’t get it. Too bad you didn’t have the full 9 month experience but I hope you keep growing and remember your light can shine anywhere.

  4. i am also a Katima-alumni. I have always said it was the best and worst time of my life! It tought me so much about myself. I met people that have changed my life for the better. The friendship I gained because of the time I spend with my 11 weirdos was amazing. Unfortunately we lost one of our Katima-family last year. I could tell it was hard on all of us as we are still in contact. It has been 12 years since we were all together but it still feels like yesterday. I love hearing about other people’s journeys through the program. It brings all my memories flooding back. I hope this program stays around for a long time!!

  5. Hi Travis,
    This is exactly how I felt when I started and ended the program. Change is scary and good. It’s been 10 years since I did Katimavik. It was an awesome experience with lots of ups and downs. I started out in a tiny town in Saskatchewan, in the middle of no where( coming from a large town in Ontario- huge culture shock), then I went to Alexandria, Ontario which was closer to what I was used to and then I finished the program in beautiful Deer Lake, Newfoundland.
    It was an awesome adventure and I am still friends with most of the people in my group and the other 2 groups that we traveled with.
    Thanks for the read. It’s good to hear that Katimavik is still changing people 🙂

    And I did Get A Life after lol

    Maya

  6. Excellent blog. At times, it felt like I was reading my own journals from Katimavik. It seems that my experiences weren’t so unique! The ups and downs you mentioned were really intense during the program.

    Katimavik showed me what Canada really was all about. It was a great chance for city folk like me to see when life was like in aboriginal communities.

    I’ve been cherishing the memories ever since it ended. But like you, my life has only become more adventurous!

    Take care – and again, well done!

  7. Travis this was beautiful story. Like you, I have lived the Katimavik life….although it was over 30 years ago. I am still wandering through life but will never regret what and how my life changed since then.
    Keep growing, changing and discovering…
    Brad

  8. Beautiful, beautiful story Travis,,I’m glad to know you,,and it’s true a lot of young people don’t like to leave the reservation life,,and I’m happy you experienced life with others as young as you. Life is how you want to live it,,life is all you want it to be. Keep on exploring and discovering new things,,and keep sharing. Take care and God bless..

  9. Hi Travis! This is Ida D. Austin from the small town you come from as a family home you will never forget! I was very touched by your story ‘Katima-Life: How 6 Months Changed My Whole Life’. It’s a wonderful true story and I am glad you entered the adventures of travelling away from home to seek a new life in other towns and citiy- yest, it is amazing to see all the changes of life throughout the country, the homestead and lifestyles way beyond “the norm” to find self-discovery, to make new friends, to enjoy beautiful natural sceneries, to enjoy each tasks you have done, and of course, to think of your family at home but all in all you have found your insight of life to strengthen you for the rest of your life. I am very proud of you and I am very happy you wrote your life experiences away from home. You have conguered your first step into the world of endless choices we all have in our life- to see the whole picture of adventures! Not only your writing skills and thoughts are sharp but your photography skills are extraordinary also! Good luck with your future endeavors; keep searching; there is alot more discoveries to see and feel for the rest of your life! Yes, life is amazing when let yourself go to find happiness and good memories! Take care, “Dont Worry, Be Happy!” Keep smiling and keep the lens in focus with precious memories for you remember all the good life you have experienced in and out of your small town of Hazelton- home is where the heart is!

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