I can still picture the last day of my fourth and final summer as a Fresh Air Fund counselor at Camp Hayden Marks, on the 2,000-acre Sharpe Reservation in upstate Fishkill, 28 years ago.
The campers, all exuberant 9- to 12-year-old boys from New York City itching to get home after 11 days in the woods, were gone, transported back to their everyday lives via white coach buses. After saying quick goodbyes to a handful of other counselors, I walked off by myself, down a narrow path to a stand of birch trees on the edge of Beaver Lake, where I had spent so many long, hot days swimming and canoeing.
There I sat, soaking in the scene. It was raining, and I watched the droplets fall into the lake, forming circular ripples on the surface. I can’t say how long I stared at the water. It was an emotional moment. I realized this would be my last summer as a Fresh Air counselor.
I had recently earned a master’s degree from Columbia University and joined the Peace Corps. I was only awaiting a country assignment to ship out. I knew I wouldn’t be returning to this magical place. I wanted to breathe it in one more time.
The nonprofit Fresh Air Fund was founded in 1877 to give children from New York City’s poor, rough-and-tumble neighborhoods time in the country where they could, literally, breathe fresh air. During my time at Hayden Marks, most of the campers were African-American and, to a lesser degree, Hispanic. A number of them had already seen drug dealing and gang warfare up close. They were older, in a sense, than their years.
I turned 20 my first summer at the camp, and 23 my last. In high school I had spent a summer watering plants and helping customers at a garden center near my home in Yaphank, in Suffolk County, and at the end of my freshman year of college, at Geneseo, I dug ditches and collected trash at Brookhaven Town parks and beaches. I was thankful for the work, but didn’t love either job, and I wanted to fall in love with my work, even if it were simply a summer position to earn money for school.
In my sophomore year of college, a classmate spoke highly of the Fresh Air Fund, for which he had been a counselor at Hayden Marks the previous summer. He suggested that I apply, warning that Fresh Air jobs were hard to get.
I had grown up backpacking and canoeing as a Boy Scout. The thought of spending my summers in the woods camping sounded fun. Little did I know how challenging the work would be.
Last week, the Herald launched a new long-term project, “Working: A series about people and their jobs,” which was inspired by Studs Terkel’s 1974 book, “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.” I figured, why not recount my Fresh Air experiences?
Initially, most of the campers were reluctant to speak. For many, it was their first time in the woods, and they found the start of camp disconcerting, if not a little scary. They were used to the constant hum of cars and air-conditioners, not the sound of strange birds cackling high up in the trees.
By day two or three, the campers had settled in, and they started to open up about their lives. Many, it seemed, just needed to talk, and nearly all of them wanted to swim in the lake every chance they got. If they didn’t know how to swim, the lifeguards taught them.
There were four 13-day camp cycles throughout the summer. Each group of campers stayed 11 days, after which counselors had two days off before the next group arrived.
Once every cycle, we took the kids deep (or at least deeper) into the woods for an overnight campout, where we cooked greasy hamburgers over a fire and slept under the night sky. With no shelter, the campers had trouble sleeping, and often would stay up past midnight, chatting nonstop. Most of the counselors didn’t seem to mind, however. The kids’ giddy excitement was infectious.
Over my four summers at Hayden Marks, I rose from counselor to nature counselor to village leader, in charge of a dozen counselors who watched over three dozen children. I learned a lot about what it is to be an adult and a leader. The work could be trying — sometimes maddeningly so — but it was rewarding and, yes, fun.
That, in short, is why Fresh Air counselor was the first job I ever loved.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.