Years ago, a child was designated “at risk.”
His father had been poisoned with Agent Orange and the boy’s body had absorbed the toxin as birth defects. Even after years of speech therapy, he had to be reminded to “speak slowly” so that people outside the family could understand him.
He was taller than all his classmates but wasn’t an athlete. He’d grown too fast and hadn’t learned yet to manage his size.
His parents’ divorce threatened to split him down the middle.
By the age of nine, his peers had marked his awkwardness and unclear speech. He had no welcoming place where he belonged easily and he had no tools to express his isolation.
Near the end of that school year, an adult mentor nominated the boy for a scholarship to a summer camp for at-risk youth – rural kids and city kids in every stripe and flavor with two things in common: they were poor and “stuck on the outside looking in.”
They were artists and writers who hadn’t learned to trust themselves. They were star swimmers who, until that summer, hadn’t seen a body of water larger than what collected in the potholes outside their apartments. Some spoke Spanish better than English and others spoke English better than Spanish. In the end, it didn’t matter.
Astonishing what children who belong nowhere will teach each other when they come together.
At first, his mother resisted her son spending a week with other “marginalized” kids. She feared he’d come to believe that his only place was on the fringe. Worse, she worried that like Woody Allen, he wouldn’t join a club “that would have [him] as a member” and he’d come home more isolated than ever.
In the end, mother and son waved goodbye to each other as the camp bus pulled out of the parking lot and disappeared down the road. He looked lost and uncertain behind the window and her eyes glistened above a rigid smile. Her best hope was that in two weeks he would find a home beyond his hometown; that he would carve a niche for himself with words like Hamlet’s, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Who knows what a child remembers? Who knows what shapes a child’s dreams? Who knows what having a choice at the right time can yield?
Today, the boy who rode off on that bus is in college with plans to return to his alma mater as an English teacher. Even better, his friends come in every stripe and flavor with two things in common: they spent their youths “on the outside looking in” and they taught themselves to grow from the inside out.
We can’t say for certain that spending two weeks in a place where he belonged as much as anyone else changed his life, but by the time he jumped off the bus, he was waving goodbye to the friends he’d made.
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From the Fresh Air Fund website (which can be reached by clicking on the button to your right):
“Every year, The Fresh Air Fund gives thousands of inner-city children the priceless gift of fun – and opens the door to a lifetime of opportunities.
Whether its a two-week trip to the country to visit a volunteer host family, or a fun-filled and educational stay at one of our camps, our programs make for unforgettable memories – and open a world of new friendships and fresh possibilities.
We are a not-for-profit agency and depend on tax-deductible donations from people like you to keep our vital programs flourishing.
Right now, any gift you make to The Fresh Air Fund will be matched dollar for dollar by a group of generous donors. If you can give $25, that means $50 for inner-city children. $50 becomes $100!
But you must make your donation by June 30th to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity.”