Judy Olsen’s life was changed through her experience at YMCA camp. She attributes her life’s success to summers portaging through northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters; connecting with fellow girl campers; and learning about life’s fortitude. She’s chosen YMCA Camp Widjiwagan as a beneficiary of her estate so that girls will get to experience summers like she had for years to come.

Why I Choose to Leave a Bequest to YMCA Camp Widjiwagan

By Judy Olsen

When I was a kid, my family traveled around the state of Minnesota, the Midwest, and Canada on camping trips. I attended Camp Fire Girls day and overnight camps. I loved making camp, chopping firewood, throwing my hunting knife, fishing, boating, hiking and campfires.

When I was in junior high school some of my classmates talked about a Y camp they planned to attend the next summer, when they would turn 13. It was YMCA Camp Widjiwagan. They told me they would be canoeing and camping for a week. It sounded great, so I asked my parents if I could go too. 

Each summer for the next 4-5 years, I made the bus trip to Burntside Lake outside of Ely. I met new kids and counselors in camp and on the trail. I was usually one of the smaller kids in my group, but I loved the challenges like carrying the food pack (the heaviest pack) over a portage, making a fire, or paddling all day long. The mist over a lake in the early morning, sitting around an evening campfire while the loons laughed and stars gleamed overhead, and the smell of pines and sunbaked rock were magic to me. We sang as we paddled and portaged, we laughed and joked as we worked together to cook a meal or plot our course. Our counselors, who were full of youthful optimism and confidence, modeled skills and fortitude and leadership. They shared their passions for the wilderness, poetry, music and more.

Everything about my experiences on canoe trips fed my soul, growing into the person I’ve become. We planned. We solved problems. We took action. And we took care of each other to make it to the trail’s end. I loved challenging myself. Meeting those challenges built my self-confidence.

At Christmas time in 1970, I received a letter from Camp Director Armand Ball saying I’d been chosen to be a Voyageur the next summer. The Voyageur invitational canoe trip is the most advanced trip in the Widjiwagan camping progression, covering hundreds of miles in remote wilderness areas of Canada and Alaska. What an honor. The planning and preparations for that trip began, and despite a setback or two that summer, our intrepid group made a grand voyage, completing our portion of the Severn River to Hudson Bay route in northwestern Ontario, Canada. Without financial assistance that would never have been possible.

So when reflecting on the key experiences of my life and preparing my estate plans, I realized how my time at Widji had shaped my outlook, drive and personality. How could I not want those experiences of beauty, growth and companionship in the wilderness for other girls? That spawned the idea of creating a fund to assist girls who want to attend Camp Widjiwagan. I know the Widji of today is not the same Widji that I experienced, and I’m sure my time was different from what it was before. The essence of the experience is what remains. Providing foundational experiences for girls to develop a strong sense of self and a love for the wilderness is important. I want to do what I can to assure that the opportunity is available for all girls, and especially those of limited means.