Encounters with Canada (ECW) is a program that doesn't get a lot of press, but more than 94,000 youth from all across Canada have participated in it.
It touts itself as Canada's "largest and foremost youth forum" and operates 26 weeks a year throughout the school year sending 128 to 140 teens (aged 14 to 17) to Ottawa, but it's not exactly common knowledge.
"It's pretty low key," said Amy Miller, who heard about the program through the grapevine. "One of my friends told me about it because she's going in April, so I researched it and everything that people said was really good and they had a good time."
Jasmine Ouellette, an ECW spokesperson, explained the program is probably not more widely known because they don't advertise, relying on a network of volunteer coordinators in schools from coast to coast.
"We're Canada's best kept secret," Ouellette said. Despite that, ECW has been operating pretty much at capacity out of the Terry Fox Canadian Youth Centre in Ottawa for 31 years.
Amy, a 15-year-old Regional High School student, was selected to attend the October 20 to 26 session on Arts and Culture.
Participants in the session, which runs six times during the year, are treated to a presentation by an inspirational entertainer, get to tour the National Art Gallery and choose from a variety of workshops including art therapy, mime, swing dancing, slam, environmental art, B-Boying, collage, djembe and improvisation.
Other theme weeks include Canada Remembers, Ecology and Environment, International Affairs, Journalism and Communications, Law, Medicine and Health, Politics in Canada, RCMP, Science and Technology, Sports and Fitness and Vimy: Canada's Coming of Age.
In addition to learning about new things and Canada, Amy said she is really hoping to make new friends and have fun. She is also looking forward to the travel having never been on such a significant trip.
"It's kind of scary, but really exciting," she said.
Jane Last, currently a Grade 12 student at the Regional, said what Amy is looking for is pretty much exactly what she can expect.
"I think it's a really good way to not only learn about career paths that you're interested in, but you meet people who share the same interests and you can make lifelong friendships," she said.
Jane participated in one of the Science and Technology weeks in September 2012. She said she has always seen herself in the science career stream, but ECW focused her. She has decided on a career in medicine and is applying to universities in the United Kingdom, which still have direct-entry into med school.
She said ECW also really opened her eyes to the accomplishments of Canadian science. In particular she was fascinated by a trip to a research facility where Canadian scientists had genetically engineered sheep with spider DNA. The spider silk extracted from the sheep's milk is used in making Kevlar vests.
"I thought that was so neat," she enthused. "It was perfect cutting edge stuff."
Jane still keeps in touch with some of the kids she met in the program and they help each other out. She said she was amazed by not only how different people from around the country were, but how much they were the same.
Dennis Nesseth, a school counselor at YRHS and the regional coordinator for ECW in southeast Saskatchewan, thinks the program is invaluable to the students who sign up.
"More and more in our world, students are having more opportunities education-wise, job-wise to go further afield," he said.
"The more experience they get dealing with other people from different places, the better. This allows them to see what Canada actually is by talking to the people. When kids come back they are transformed.
Encounters with Canada was the brainchild the Canadian Unity Council (CUC), which in 1978 commissioned a survey to determine national interest in a youth program that would raise awareness of Canada's heritage and institutions.
In 1982, the CUC bought and renovated Our Lady of Mount Carmel School transforming it into a residential complex for the program.
Buoyed by a $250,000 donation from Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales the following year, ECW embarked on a quarter century of success that almost ended in 2006 when the CUC shut down. Fortunately, efforts by volunteers and supporters resulted in a new sponsor stepping forward. The Historica Foundation purchased ECW and has kept it going since.
The program is still accepting applications for 2013/2014 sessions. Nesseth said students or parents of students wanting to get involved can get in touch with him at dennis.ness...@gssd.ca or 306.786.5556.
Registration is only $675, which includes travel, lodgings, meals, activities and entrance fees to museums or other cultural institutions. A student may only participate in ECW one time.