How a counsellor helped his young campers have a rewarding summer

John Beach was 17 years old when he first set foot on Bolton Camp, an overnight summer camp for low-income families. It was the summer of 1964, one that the now 75-year-old described as the “most rewarding” of his life.

The camp, then located 40 kilometres north of Toronto, was established in 1922 to provide a summer holiday for mothers with small children, and later for older boys and girls. It was partially funded by the Atkinson Foundation and the Toronto Star’s annual Fresh Air Fund drive.

Beach, however, didn’t arrive as a camper.

The son of an upper-middle class physician from Frankford, a village near Quinte West, Beach came as a camp counsellor.

He doesn’t remember how he ended up at Bolton. Perhaps his aunt, a Toronto social worker, put the bug in his mother’s ear. Perhaps, mom felt he should put the skills he’d learned during a three-week leadership course at Bark Lake to work.

By then Bolton Camp was spread over more than 300 acres, and divided into three areas, each with cabins, dining and assembly halls, washrooms and a swimming pool. In the section for the older boys, ages 8 to 14, groups were divided into three age brackets with Beach getting a cabin full of 12- to 14-year-olds. During the summer, he’d get four different groups for two weeks each.

The first group was a bit of an adjustment, Beach concedes. “I was kind of new at it, and I realized that you didn’t want to get behind the curve with these guys.”

With the second group, he laid down the law early. “At that age, you had to let them know who the alpha dog was,” he recalled. “After that, I didn’t have to. They were just eating out of my hand.”

As soon as the boys got off the bus and the campers were assigned their cabins, Beach confiscated their knives. “They all carried knives in 1964,” he told the Star. “These were street kids.”

He kept the knives in a cupboard — “That’s the rule and that’s where it stays for all the time we’re in camp” — by his bed near the cabin’s door. The one camper who didn’t willingly give up his knife was ratted out by the others.

After that boy returned home, he mailed Beach a sweet letter, with “cartoony-type” drawings on it. “He was obviously angling to make sure I didn’t give him a bad review,” Beach noted.

He was tasked with writing reports on all his campers, which were used to determine who would return the next summer. “I gave everybody a good report just because I felt sorry for them.”

One day, Beach noticed a boy aimlessly walking around and went over to him. “You know, adolescents aren’t very articulate … He cried a little bit. That’s when I first really noticed, like ‘Wow, these guys, they are in a lot of pain and a lot of need.’”

“All the boys” had mothers on welfare, he said. He surveyed his campers and found that few of them knew their fathers. “None of them lived with their fathers, and only about 20 per cent knew, actually, who their fathers were.”

“Because they had never experienced meaningful attention from a mature male, the gratitude I received back was both surprising and powerful,” he told the Star.

By the end of the two weeks, the boys had built a real esprit de corps. Competitions between cabins helped, as did an overnight, sleeping in tents in the Albion Hills Conservation area, about a six-kilometre walk away. Beach fondly remembers how they swam in a stream by the edge of the woods, built campfires and told ghost stories.

Beach only realized the significance of his Bolton experience years later, after he worked as a musician at an “overprivileged” fine arts camp for rich New Yorkers.

“When I finished the summer at Bolton, I felt so good. I just felt like a million dollars. And at the end of this? ‘Oh it’s done.’” Everyone was pleasant, he said, but he didn’t have the same satisfaction.

“It was then that I noticed how amazing it was to be in a situation where you could help other people — make other people feel good, you know?”

Toronto Star readers can experience that feeling by supporting the Fresh Air Fund. It has been sending kids to summer camp for more than 120 years. Thanks to the generosity of our readers, it provides annual support to more than 100 day and overnight camps. Through your donation, you can help give more than 25,000 disadvantaged and special-needs kids the chance to attend summer camp.

If you have been touched by the Fresh Air Fund or have a story to tell, please email [email protected].

Althia Raj is an Ottawa-based national politics columnist for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @althiaraj

Goal: $750,000

Amount raised: $719,687

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.

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