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Camp Tonakela, India, Built by a Canadian Camp Director, Celebrates 75 years!

Posted on May 12, 2014 by John Jorgenson

Wallace Forgie, founder of Camp Tonakela

Wallace Forgie travelled to India to serve as Secretary to the Madras chapter of the YMCA. After retiring in 1936, he remained in India and devoted his life to improving the lives of underprivileged children by building a camp.

Two years after his retirement, Wallace Forgie set up Camp Tonakela. Apparently, Forgie chose the Canadian-Indian name meaning ‘NOT FOR SELF’ but it also sounds like “THANUKKU ILLA” in Tamil, which too means not for self.

Forgie came to India as part of YMCA outreach but became an admirer of Indian culture and religion, which were much more integrated into people’s lives. He left the Y and began this mission on his own with support from camps in Canada.

Forgie, founder of Ottawa YMCA Camp On-da-da-waks and with vast experience in outdoor camping, felt that city-folk needed to be encouraged to enjoy camping. In 1946, 15 acres of land was acquired in Avadi by the Camp Tonakela Association. The Camp’s objective was, in Forgie’s own words, “to provide a well-equipped camp site, conduct training in camping and in the leadership of every form of character building activities.” Forgie also had a vision of helping the nearby villagers enhance their skills in gardening, agriculture, handicrafts and cottage industry. Camp Tonakela was to act as the support centre for these villagers who were interested in developing their skills.

Now, in its 75th year, Camp Tonakela continues to enthrall nature lovers with its beauty and mystery. Camp Tonakela offers 15 acres of greenery with lots of trees and shrubs, a small pond and a covered swimming pool, all within its compound. There are 24 tents, adequate sanitation facilities and a kitchen with utensils for the campers to use.

Wally Forgie was “a kindly man with a lot of integrity and a desire to help and uplift persons he worked with and worked for without regard to religion, caste, etc. in the finest tradition of the YMCA,” a Canadian colleague writes. Another colleague recalls, “My earliest recollection of Wally Forgie was during one of his visits to Camp On-da-da-waks in or about 1959-60. He was particularly fascinated with the many pine cones scattered about the camp property and was quite intent on taking a number of them back to Madras…”

Nowadays, over 1200 campers, 800 picnickers and 1000 swimmers use the Camp’s facilities. Day-to-day expenses are met by the income from camps, picnics and swimming. Capital expenditure has to come from donations. The Camp Tonakela connection to Canada and to ICF goes on…

The headquarters for the International Camping Fellowship is located at Camp Tawingo in Canada. Camp Tawingo was founded by Jack Pearse, a former director of YMCA Camp On-da-da-waks . On-da-da-waks, which means ‘Men of the Woods’ in the Algonquin language, was recognized as the oldest in Ontario while it ran (until 1967). Camp Tawingo and several other camps in Canada sent annual donations to Camp Tonakela for many years.

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John Jorgenson has an Honours B.Sc. Degree in Biology from University of Waterloo and has been at Camp Tawingo since 1977. He directs and coordinates the Tawingo Outdoor Centre throughout the year and he is a Director of Program for the Summer Camp. He has served as President of the Ontario Camps Association, President of the Canadian Camping Association, Chair of the Editorial Board of the American Camps Association's "Camping Magazine", and a Board Member of the Society of Camp Directors. Recently "Jorgi" became an Honourary Life Member of the Ontario Camps Association. He has conducted workshops on Camping and Outdoor Education across Canada, the United States, Japan, Malaysia, Australia, Greece, Mexico, Bulgaria, Russia, and Hong Kong. He has contributed to and co-authored five Camp Tawingo Publications. John was the General Session Chair of the Third International Camping Congress in Toronto in 1994, the Kindred Conference Chair for the Association of Independent Camps of the American Camping Association in the same year, and currently serves as Chair of the International Camping Fellowship. Recently Jorgi was recognized with the International Development Award for his outstanding contributions to camping the world over.