The swimming, the tree climbing, the games of Capture the Flag and the moon rising over the campfire at Lake Scugog Camp are all delicious. But it’s the inner gifts she takes home that endure, as much a part of camp memory as grubby feet, frogs in sleeping bags and jugs of juice on pine tables.
So focused, she adds, “so alive.”
Being outdoors in summer is good for the soul. The wind in the silver maples, the sparks of light on the lake soothe the spirit, but as Pina says in her wise child way, camp is about the people and the loving web they weave.
By giving to the Star’s Fresh Air Fund, readers sent 25,000 children to camps such as Scugog this summer. The campaign, which ends Saturday, Aug. 4, raised $ 652,757 and is worth every penny for kids like Pina who go to one of 52 overnight camps or 52 day camps the Fresh Air Fund supports.
Lake Scugog Camp is owned by the United Church and started hosting kids in the 1930s. Joseph E. Atkinson and his wife, writer Elmina, had launched the Fresh Air Fund in 1901 to give children a break out of the stifling city. They were terrible times — on one July day 28 Torontonians, including 12 babies, died of heat-related causes.
Times are different, but there is still hardship. Many of the Scugog camp kids live in shelters or foster care in Toronto; some have disorders (attention deficit, oppositional and more) that make life troublesome for them. Some have no behavioural problems, but come from families where parents are stretched and work two or more jobs to pay the bills.
But there is one counsellor for every two children in camp. “Attention is what they crave more than anything,” says Dana Leahey, camp director for more than 30 years. “And how much better it is to have attention when lying on the grass.”
“See all these stuffed animals up there?” she asks, pointing to a shelf of unconventional critters, inspired more by Star Wars than Disney. “Do you think we bought them?
“No!” she says, with a note of triumph. “We made them.”
Add sewing to the list of camp acquired skills.
Darkening clouds move across Lake Scugog, a storm threatens and Pina goes to her cabin for quiet hour. Older campers and staff leaders in training and junior counsellors, gather for the daily session of reflection and circle time.
They’ve been canoeing and raced for shore when thunder rumbled. It was exciting being together. It all builds character and confidence.
But here’s one teenage boy: “Camp is a chance to get away from home. Here, I can forget about being in foster care. I don’t like it. I’d prefer to be with my parents, but I can get away from the commotion and thoughts I have about being in care.”
Jesse Murphy, 15, chimes in. “It’s an escape,” he says. “You don’t worry about who has the best clothes or who is the most popular. Here everyone is equal. You can be yourself and be silly and not be judged. This program builds you as a person.”
He’s been learning how to motivate people and how to take the lead when things get chaotic. They just had a good lesson, coming in from the storm-tossed lake. “I learned how to stay calm and how I can trust people to help me.”
From Kevan Nelson, 19, a leadership director: “A lot of kids come from hard places. It gives them a break, and a goal they can aspire to. Campers come here with no idea where they are going in life. This gives them an impression of where they can go. It’s a different image of themselves — they are succeeding here.”
Matthew Porter, 16, also went on the hiking trip last year. He’s an amputee who lost half his foot in a car accident four years ago. “I have to work twice as hard to be half as good,” he says. “On the hiking trip it was really hard, but nobody let me stop.”
Leahey says there are lots of kids who get bumped around in different kinds of care. “Camp is the most stable thing in their lives”.
This group meets once a month throughout the year, they call each other for help editing papers at school, do volunteer work together. The caring runs deep because many don’t have parents to nurture them and worry over them. “It’s easy for foster children to feel they have no one,” Matthew adds. He says he’s now with a “forever” family.
Becky Heron, 21, is the last to speak up. The turmoil she’s known doesn’t show on her radiant face. She isn’t in touch with her mom and doesn’t know her dad. One foster family promised she was theirs for life. “I truly thought they would be my family, that they would be my mom and dad.” It lasted five years. She lived with five foster families, though she now has a permanent home with Leahey’s family.
The kids she works with at camp know she’s struggled. “If I can do it, they can do and become better people.”
“Someone sponsored us and it was really nice. If I met that person, I would say, ‘thank you so much’.
“I would make something for them and I would give them a huge hug.”