Switzerland's oldest summer camp celebrates 125th birthday

The oldest holiday camp for children in Switzerland, La Cézille, has been helping disadvantaged youngsters for 125 years, and its commitment remains as strong as ever.

This content was published on July 23, 2000 - 13:00

La Cézille lies in countryside of canton Vaud, near the village of Begnins, about half an hour's drive from Geneva. It takes children aged from five to 15, who spend three weeks in July or August enjoying a holiday their parents might not otherwise be able to afford.

The camp, originally located at Collex-Bossy, was founded by the pastor, Otto Steiger, in 1875. His intention was to help the less well-off members of Geneva's Swiss-German community, who otherwise had no opportunity to go on holiday. In the days before workers received paid vacations, the children would spend two months at the camp.

Today there are eight such summer camps in the Geneva area. Most were set up in the years following Steiger's original camp.

"Today we still try to help children with difficulties. That's our main purpose," says the camp's director, Pierre Gilly.

"A stay here takes them out of their everyday lives and opens them up to new experiences," he told swissinfo at the celebrations marking La Cézille's 125th anniversary.

Nowadays the children at the camp come from all kinds of backgrounds. Most are from Geneva and canton Vaud, but more and more foreigners are sending their kids, too. In recent years the camp has welcomed Italian, Spanish and Swedish visitors, as well as the children of asylum-seekers.

"Normally parents pay for the holiday, but we do take account of their income and charge them only what they can afford," Gilly says.

"If parents really do have trouble paying, they can apply to the Poletti Foundation, which will pay part or all of the cost. We want every child to have a chance to come here. No one should be prevented from coming here because of a lack of money," he adds.

Children of asylum-seekers or those who come from poor or even violent homes are recommended to the camp by Geneva's child protection service. These youngsters often rub shoulders with the children of doctors and lawyers.

"We get all kinds of children here. They usually don't care about someone else's background. Here at La Cézille we all try to get along with one another," Gilly says.

La Cézille does not have the rigid regime common in many summer camps. Children are split into three groups, according to age, and they can decide how their day is organised and which activities to do. They can wake up and have breakfast whenever they like, and in the mornings they usually take part in some creative activities.

The afternoons are taken up with swimming, pony-trekking, archery, cinema trips or camping. Much of their time is actually spent away from La Cézille in places like Lausanne, the nearby mountains or on Lake Geneva.

"I think it's important that the children have a say in what they do and can choose their own activities," says Rachel Wach, a teacher working at the camp this summer.

"It's a relaxed atmosphere, and the children are made to feel like they belong here," she says. "It's great that those who aren't so well-off can do things that they would never do in their normal lives."

Many of La Cézille's visitors come from disadvantaged backgrounds so the camp employs social workers, who are able to recognise and deal with any emotional difficulties as they arise. Many come back each year to help out.

Geneva's Swiss-German Reform Community still maintains its links with the camp, but much of the additional funding now comes from the cantonal and city authorities. Even so, I'm sure Otto Steiger would be pleased to know that his camp is still going strong after 125 years.

by Roy Probert

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