The first (and only) time my parents sent me to sleepaway camp, I cried for two weeks straight.
I was 12 and a serious homebody — and admittedly a bit of a drama queen.
Driving up the gravel road to the canoe-tripping camp I was set to attend in Ontario’s Algonquin Highlands, I moodily stared out the window, Train’s Drops of Jupiter in my headphones, willing my parents to turn the car around and take me back home. To this day, that song still makes me a little emotional.
For practically the full 14 days in July, while the other kids swam in the lake and roasted marshmallows, I sulked and wrote letters home begging for my parents to come pick me up.
My mum can’t recall the specifics of those letters, but she said the central message “was that we had to come and get you RIGHT NOW.” My dad remembers one note including the zinger: “Why would you do this to me?”
Thankfully, there was a mail strike that summer, so none of my laments made it home in time.
Instead, my dad said he remembers what a big smile I had on my face when he picked me up, gushing about the new friends I had made and showing off a canoe paddle they had all signed for me.
The harrowing letters continued to arrive for about a week after I got home.
Maybe, that summer, I wasn’t quite ready for sleepaway camp. But I like to think that experience is what kicked off what has now become a lifelong passion for adventure.
A few summers later, when I was in high school, I was lucky enough to spend three weeks backpacking in Hawaii. It was there that I learned how to set up a tent in the dark, how to cook a delicious meal on a camping stove, and most importantly, how to be resilient in unknown — and sometimes uncomfortable — situations.
My love for backpacking has only grown since then. In my adult life, I’ve made it a priority to get outside as much as possible, and my trusty hiking boots and my backpack are some of my most-prized possessions.
These days, one of my favourite things to do is climb mountains. To me, there is no better feeling than the sense of accomplishment I get from taking those final steps to reach the top of a mountain peak, then looking down at the expansive nature below, breathless, sweaty, smiling.
As someone who often feels a need to control things around me, spending time outside forces me to let go. In the outdoors, I never know what will come my way — be it wind, rain, snow or mud. While I always try to be well-prepared, surprises are inevitable — and that’s the beauty of it.
A few years ago, I set off to hike Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa, part of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains range. The day I was meant to summit Toubkal, I woke up in the early morning with a big bout of nausea. I barely made it a few steps before altitude sickness hit me like a ton of bricks, and I had to turn around.
I had spent months researching and saving up for the trip, and it was disappointing not to make it to the top. For a second there, dizzy and exhausted, I was my 12-year-old self again, wishing my parents could come get me.
But I made it back the bottom, one foot in front of the other, feeling proud and grateful to have been able to spend a couple days in the mountains, even if the outcome wasn’t what I had expected. Next time I climbed a mountain that high, I made sure to bring altitude pills.
Spending time in the outdoors isn’t always sunny, but I think that’s the point. My first experience at sleepaway camp, which I can laugh about now, shaped me into the independent and capable person I am today.
That’s why initiatives like the Toronto Star’s Fresh Air Fund are so important. Summer camp — and all the challenges, lessons and fun memories that come with it — shouldn’t be restricted to those who can afford it. Many Toronto Star readers think so too, which is why we are raising our goal to $750,000, in the hopes of sending more and more kids to camp. Will you help us get there?
“If you have been touched by the Fresh Air Fund or have a story to tell, please email [email protected].”
Amount raised: $653,189
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.
How to donate
By cheque: Mail to The Toronto Star Fresh Air Fund, One Yonge St., Toronto, ON M5E 1E6
By Visa, MasterCard or AMEX: Call 416-869-4847
Online: For instant donations, use our secure form at thestar.com/freshairfund
The Star does not authorize anyone to solicit on its behalf. Tax receipts will be issued.