Saturday, August 18, 2007

Fun and Games, and Hope

Published: August 18, 2007

Boston

I saw what probably was the biggest smile in the state of Massachusetts on Thursday, but I’ll get to that later.

The day started with a drive across an obscure two-lane bridge to an all-but-forgotten island in Boston Harbor. The city’s skyline glistened beyond the silvery expanse of water off to the left.

The mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino, was in the front seat of the S.U.V. I’ve been writing recently about kids trapped in urban combat zones where bullets are apt to fly at any moment and the residents in some neighborhoods are taking horrendous casualties. As we came off the bridge and passed through a wooded area, Mayor Menino promised that we were about to see the absolute antithesis of that kind of environment.

“You have to give kids hope and an alternative to the streets,” he said.

Mr. Menino’s alternative is a place called Camp Harbor View, a respite from city life that’s a 20-minute drive and light years away from Boston’s roughest neighborhoods.

The first thing you notice are the kids, hundreds of them in T-shirts and shorts engaged in a mind-boggling array of supervised activities: rope-climbing and soccer, baseball and basketball, swimming and hiking and fishing, dancing and singing and arts and crafts.

The grounds that the youngsters play on are pristine. A spotless beach slopes gently down to the harbor. The city shimmers on the other side of the water, like a mirage.

Harbor View is a day camp for kids 11 to 14 who are bused in each morning to an environment that is the closest some of them have come to nirvana.

“I didn’t know life could be like this,” said Nilza, a 12-year-old girl from Dorchester. “There’s no fighting ’cause that’s a rule here — not to fight.”

A boy standing beside her happily agreed.

“There’s no violence here,” he said. “And no trash on the ground.”

On the first day, the kids are issued backpacks, T-shirts, a couple of pairs of shorts, sneakers and other personal items.

The mayor said, “I can’t tell you how many of them ask, ‘Do we get to keep this?’ I tell them, ‘Yes. It’s yours.’ ”

The kids are given three meals a day, prepared by a first-rate catering company. Junk food is nowhere in sight. The camp experience lasts about a month, during which the kids are taught a variety of new skills and are encouraged to develop leadership traits.

The camp was Mayor Menino’s idea, but getting it going was a heavy lift. There was no money in the budget for such an initiative.

It took an extraordinary $10 million fund-raising effort by a retired advertising executive named Jack Connors, and an equally extraordinary construction effort by workers who at times pitched tents and slept on the island to get the camp ready for the kids by the start of this summer.

It hasn’t always been easy for the kids, either. A 14-year-old named Tyler has embraced the camp as a refuge from the violence in his South End neighborhood.

“Some of my friends have gone to jail already,” he said. “You know, for having guns and shooting. The people here aren’t like that.”

The mayor and camp officials told me later that some of Tyler’s friends have been harassing him, trying to persuade him to quit the camp.

“But he comes here every day,” Mr. Menino said.

Now there were voices raised behind us, and we turned to see a kid in a harness and helmet standing atop a pole about four stories high. The harness was attached to a network of ropes above the youngster, who was frightened.

He was supposed to jump and counselors controlling the ropes would guide him safely to the ground. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

Now a chorus of encouraging shouts went up. “You can do it! You’ll be fine! Jump!”

When the kid leaped from the pole, everybody cheered. He drifted toward the ground as though floating in a parachute and gently touched down. His smile lit up the afternoon.

Mayor Menino and the others responsible for Camp Harbor View haven’t remade the world. They’ve simply improved the environment, temporarily, for several hundred youngsters who deserved a break.

They’ve offered the kids a range of healthy activities and supervision. They’ve shown the kids that somebody cares about them. And they’ve tolerated no nonsense.

Mr. Menino’s grin, as we drove back over the two-lane bridge, was almost as wide as the smile on the kid who survived his four-story leap.

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