The girls from Newark went to the same camp five years apart, and both were crying for the same reason.
Shaheedah Johnson, who was 12 years old, and Mariyam Kayjay, who was 7, had never been to an overnight camp. And this one would last for two weeks.
“It was not sitting well with me,” said Johnson, now 20, reflecting on that period in her life, thinking, “What am I going to do without my parents?”
Even her dad, James Johnson, had second thoughts. He remembers seeing the hands of his distraught daughter pressed against the bus window as it pulled off toward Frost Valley camp in Claryville, New York.
It wasn’t any better for Kayjay, now 20.
“As the bus is leaving, my brother is laughing and I’m crying my eyes out,” Kayjay said.
Within days, however, the tears had dried for both of them. The homesickness was gone. Johnson conquered her fear of darkness and heights. Kayjay learned to be responsible, and that being on her own wasn’t bad after all. She became a camp regular, returning each summer for nearly five years. They both made friends, staying in touch with several of them today.
The Greater Newark Fresh Air Fund had worked its camp magic again, just as it has been doing since 1882. That’s how long the summer program, operated by the Newark Day Center, the oldest social agency in New Jersey, has been sending city kids to camp.
Last year, 150 kids had the opportunity to leave the city streets to be outdoors and in the woods. The fund is targeting another 150 this year to attend its 11 camps, where there’s overnight and day camp programs. Kids with special needs and disabilities are not left out, either. There’s camp for them, too.
They just need generous support from you to get there.
“We’re going to send as many children as we can until the money runs out,” said Donna Johnson-Thompson, executive director of the Newark Day Center.
The fund counts on public donations and money raised from the Battle of the Barristers, a softball tournament among law firms that usually nets about $100,000 annually.
“I wish I could bring in a million dollars,” said Stephen R. Turano, an attorney with the Connell Foley law firm in Roseland, which is leading the fundraising campaign for the tournament that it won last year. “The goal is to get as many kids to camp and give them the chance to have that amazing moment that’s going to change their life.”
If you would like to donate, send your check to the Greater Newark Fresh Air Fund, 43 Hill St., Newark N.J. 07102, or you can give by credit card at Newarkdaycenter.org. The names of contributors will be published on Sundays, starting this week in The Star-Ledger.
Johnson and Kayjay had so much fun at camp, they didn’t want to leave.
“We (campers) huddled up with our counselor and cried,” Shaheedah Johnson said. “I didn’t want to go back home.”
She bonded with her friends. Kayjay did, too, cherishing the relationships and experiences that have helped both young ladies now that they are in college.
Kayjay, a junior and a psychology major at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, said camping taught her to be independent.
“I loved it so much, I chose to go away to college out of state,” she said. “I like taking care of myself, knowing that I can do something on my own.”
Johnson leaned on the social skills she learned at camp when it was time to head to Montclair State University. A senior and a psychology major, Johnson said she was able to adjust to college life and create relationships.
“It (camping) made me a better person,” Johnson said.
The positive experience they had should trickle down to campers who will board buses next month.
Johnson-Thompson said the first session for Camp Winonah in upstate New York is already filled and she’s working on the second session. The first two sessions for Life Camp, a program kids attend for the day, are full, too.
“People are still interested in the Fresh Air Fund,” Johnson-Thompson said. “They want to put their children into something new. They want them to experience nature.”
James Johnson, of Newark, sent Shaheedah for the same reasons, even though he was scared when he attended camp through the Fresh Air Fund.
The crickets, the darkness, the noises had him on edge.
“I wasn’t used to that,” he said. “I’m used to cars and airplanes. I was jittery when I left. I was jittery when I came back, but I had fun.”
When he decided to let his daughter, Shaheedah, attend overnight camp, Johnson said parental nerves kicked in and his heart was beating with worry as the bus drove off. He would soon learn, though, that he had made the right decision.
Newark resident Marie Holley hasn’t reached that plateau. She’s still apprehensive about allowing her 11-year-old daughter to attend overnight camp.
“l believe she can do it,” said Holley, an employee at the Newark Day Center. “It’s just me.”
For the past three years, her child has been going to Life Camp, a day program that she lets her daughter attend because the kids return home in the evening.
“I’m going to work on her,” Johnson-Thompson said.
I know you will.
When her daughter is 20, she’ll have a story to tell, just like Shaheedah Johnson and Mariyam Kayjay.