Ron Cowan is the first non Estonian to become president of Sõrve Sõbrad.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. What's your background? How long have you been involved with the Estonian community in Australia?
Ron Cowan: I am a New Zealander and came to Australia over 27 years ago as part of a Company Transfer from Auckland. I have four adult children living in Australia and New Zealand.
I was introduced to the Estonian community seven years ago through my wife Pille Pȕvendi who has been part of the community all her life. Coming from New Zealand, which also has a very rich heritage, I came to appreciate another community that enjoyed celebrating their culture through language, song and dance – and of course the odd social function.
You performed at the last Laulupidu (Estonian Song Festival) with the InHarmony choir. What was the experience like?
Ron Cowan: To put it simply one of the most uplifting experiences of my life.
I first became directly involved with Estonian singing when I was asked to join the choir that sang at Sydney Eesti Päevad (Sydney Estonian Days) two years ago. I had not been in choir since my college days so it was an experience to 'tickle the tonsils' again.
For a New Zealander who lives in Australia and represents the Estonian/Australian at Laulupidu was a very humbling and emotional experience. To stand amid a 32000 person mixed choir of which the 5000 plus tenors surrounding me were singing with tears in their eyes, certainly pulls the heart strings in witnessing a passion and love of country.
I would do it again in a heartbeat.
You have become president of Sõrve Sõbrad. What made you to take up the role?
Ron Cowan: I was introduced to camp the first year Pille and I got together. I supposed this would have been my first real social experience in meeting most of the community within a very close environment.
Apart from being a very social and activity based week, what really struck me was how the Estonian/Australian community have entrusted their young adults to take full charge of camp managing all the day's activities and ensuring the safety and wellbeing of their charges – from all ages up to 18. From an 'outsider' perspective I still think this an amazing and unique opportunity for the young of a community to be mentored and learn people skills at such a young age.
I went to 3 full week camps and enjoyed every day of them and suddenly in 2010 I was invited to be part of the Sub Committee to develop and manage the 50th Anniversary of the Camp being at Point Wolstoncroft. This was a steep learning curve of being introduced into the various aspects of camp management and it was great to see that all those who attended the occasion had an enjoyable time.
I had not attended camp for more than 2/3 days over the last few camps however I did notice that the numbers were down and accordingly both Pille and I attended the next Annual General Meeting to see if we could offer some assistance in the camps future planning. Pille and I got voted into the committee and to be selected as President was a very humbling experience as I believe I am the first non-Estonian to hold this position.
Sõrve Camp has more than 50 years of history. In your call of action (Meie Kodu 19/09) you emphasised that it's time for "a new chapter". How do you see Sõrve's future? How to sustain interest in Sõrve?
Ron Cowan: To look to the future we have to consider the past.
As stated previously we have had attendance at the camp reduce over the last few years. Sõrve Sõbrad considers the main factors to be:
Change in Generation Dynamics. To date Sõrve has been primarily supported by the 1stto 4th generation of Australian/Estonians that initially set up Sõrve to be this little piece of Estonia that keep tradition and culture close to the community. During these years it was more or less 'compulsory' for the community to go to camp, resulting in these same families, and extensions thereof, continuing the tradition.
Over recent times generation dynamics have changed. Our grown children have other diverting interests and we are struggling to attract new young Australian/Estonian families (across all sectors) living in Australia coming to Sõrve.
We are fortunate that some of our young adults contribute to the camp by being Leaders and this discipline continues throughout the year in supporting Sõrve and other activities within the community. We currently have 4 young adults in our Sõrve Sõbrad who attended camp in the past as Leaders and now hold senior roles in the committee.
Cost of attendance. NSW Sport and Recreation set the pricing of the camp and fees increase annually by 3-5%. We are set a minimum attendance in order to book the camp for the full seven days to maintain camp exclusivity to keep our families safe and secure. Any cost shortfall Sõrve Sõbrad has to cover.
There is a perception that our costs are high. For any family we are directly competing with other travel spots that offer similar packaged pricing eg Fiji. From a family perspective our costs are less than $100 per person per day which includes child management, 3 meals a day, modern accommodation and facilities all within a very safe and secure environment.
Restrictions in obtaining funding. Being a non-profit organization we are currently unable to attract direct investment or sponsorship – having no tax benefits for the donor. To maintain cash flow we are reliant on the small mark-up we can achieve in camp fees and we need to continuously organise fundraising activities. We do obtain fee coverage from those who attend camp however we have other direct operational costs that need to be maintained.
The Estonian/Australian community has been incredibly generous in the past for fundraising activity and the various grants received from other Estonian communities within Australia, however there is a limit as to how far we can continue to request this sole support from within the community–especially if they also wish to individually fund their attendance to camp.
Sõrve Sõbrad would love to have other means of raising funds so we could then develop assistance programs to enable additional families to attend camp.
So what is the future of Sõrve?
Ron Cowan: Sõrve Sõbrad took time out to spend a few hours on what Sõrve Summer Camp was all about. We white boarded the many aspects of what Sõrve represented to the community and in short we knew we had to take a new direction in how we had to market the camp.
The camp structure has basically remained the same. We have been doing it now for 50 years so we have experience in running a great camp for all ages – keeping attendees busy, active, well feed, experiencing culture, learning new things about one self, learning to lead but above all we have great fun and develop lifelong friendships.
As stated previously Sõrve was derived from an appreciation of keeping the Estonian culture alive within a community. There were not too many opportunities to go back to Estonia in those times so Sõrve served as a place to enjoy Estonia, its people and its culture.
For those young Estonian families that have more recently come to Australia to live have come for different reasons and have a solid direct link to Estonia through family and friends. Travelling to and from Estonia is easier and more frequent.
We want to encourage these families, who have decided to settle in Australia, to come to Sõrve to see some Australian ways of doing things, listen to their stories and make new friends. These new attendees will be the future of the camp and we would look forward to them joining in the administration of Sõrve and carrying on this community tradition.
We also want to see those who have not been to camp for a while – and their extended families.
Sõrve Sõbrad is committed to continuing the traditions of Sõrve Summer Camp but now we need to place emphasis on what the camp has to offer our community and accordingly have established the slogan Sõrve Lugu...uus peatükk (Experience Sõrve...a new Chapter).
What Sõrve has to offer for community?
Ron Cowan: At Sõrve we will continue to include some Estonian traditions within language, song and dance and every day continue to raise two flags and sing two anthems (Estonian and Australian). We need to establish another chapter of Sõrve history and try and continue for another 50 years.
We need our Estonian/Australian community to Experience Sõrve. Firstly, experience our know how. We can run a fantastic camp – 50 years of experience – within a completely secure environment. Secondly, experience Enjoyment .. the creativity of being active and having fun. And last, experience a Challenge (being able to encourage development and friendship).
Sõrve Summer Camp is not a NSW camp – it is a National Camp for all Australian/Estonian communities. It just happens to be located in NSW.
Please visit our website: www.sorve.org.au
|Ron Cowan: Sõrve camp needs to continue another 50 years The new president of Sõrve Sõbrad, Ron Cowan, is the first non Estonian to take up this role. He is a New Zealander who was introduced to the Estonian community through his wife Pille Püvendi. This year he was not only nominated to be president of Sõrve but he also performed at Laulupidu.|