Camp can boost everything from a child’s sense of community to their own self-worth in just one short week, writes reporter Rosa Saba. | The Star

2022-06-25 05:25:01 By : Ms. Olive Wu

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I was a shy kid.

No, really. My job now involves talking to strangers all the time, putting my name in print and in general being outgoing in the annoying way only journalists have license to do. But if you met me at five or 10 or even 15 years old, you wouldn’t have pegged me for a future reporter.

You can thank summer camp for that. (Or not, depending how you feel about reporters.)

When I was younger, I spent a week several years in a row at a local summer camp on a small lake less than an hour away from home. I learned to canoe, faced my fear of heights on the climbing wall and did arts and crafts. I learned to love the sound of rain on a tin roof at night and the comforting warmth of a sleeping bag in a dark cabin. I made bracelets, swapped them with new friends, had silly camp crushes and sang songs around a campfire. And while I did these wholesome, stereotypical activities, I had no idea how lucky I was to be there.

Every summer that my siblings and I were campers, the cost was partially or fully paid for by a “campership” meant to benefit kids who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to go. Many of the children at our camp were in the same boat. While there were other more expensive camps in the area offering horseback riding and high ropes courses, this one offered camperships and tiered payment plans to make it as accessible as possible.

Teenage me returned to the same camp as a counsellor for several summers, learning to belay children up that climbing wall, teaching them the same songs I had known by heart for years and leading canoe trips across the lake. Later I was a board member and then the camp director. And while my early years as a camper were certainly a gift, being able to give that gift to other children was an even more valuable and formative experience for me. It was then that I really came out of my shell.

When I was a camper I looked up to my counsellors, and so as a counsellor I became acutely aware that everything I did could alter a child’s life. It was a weight I took seriously. I had tough conversations with kids about body image, friendships and family, and I chose my words carefully. It was frightening, but it felt more important than anything I had ever done. There was no time to be shy in those moments.

Every week, I saw with my own eyes the closest thing to a miracle I’ve ever witnessed. The kids who showed up on Monday too shy to speak up at the dinner table were the ones singing the loudest at the final campfire and giving the biggest hugs before they left. They were often the kids who, I would learn, were coming from the hardest places, places of poverty or family unrest. I feel lucky to have worked somewhere that strove to make sure those kids could spend a week at camp, as worry-free as possible.

Again, at the time I didn’t realize just how lucky we all were.

According to the American Camping Association, in 2021 only 18 per cent of day campers and 20 per cent of overnight campers were from a no-income or low-income family. Overnight camps had a higher concentration of children from high-income families at almost 40 per cent, likely because these camps tend to cost more.

Yet extensive research shows that the children who benefit most from summer camp are those least likely to go. Low-income, at-risk children are exposed to experiences at camp they might not be able to access elsewhere. And camp can boost everything from a child’s sense of community to their own self-worth in just one short week.

I don’t need to connect the dots for you here, but I will. The kids who need camp the most are the ones least likely to go. And that’s something you have the power to change.

By donating to the Fresh Air Fund, you can give children community, confidence, life-changing experiences, new friends and fun. Trust me, it will stay with them for life.

If you have been touched by the Fresh Air Fund or have a story to tell, email or phone 416-869-4847.

With your gift, the Fresh Air Fund can help send underprivileged and special-needs children to camp. These children will have the chance to take part in a camp experience they will cherish for a lifetime.

By cheque: Mail to The Toronto Star Fresh Air Fund, One Yonge St., Toronto, ON M5E 1E6

By Visa, MasterCard or AMEX: Call 416-869-4847

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