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Opinion | Fresh Air and the Great Outdoors

The kids in the physical education class that Derrick Martin teaches at 47 the American Sign Language and English Secondary School (it was once Public School 47) are around the same age he was when he first left New York City to work at a summer camp upstate.

Mr. Martin was 16 and had never camped outdoors himself before the Fresh Air Fund hired him as counselor-in-training at Camp Hayden-Marks in Fishkill in 2008. When he was between the ages of 6 and 12, he had lived with host families upstate and in Maine and Pennsylvania through the fund’s summer programming. But lodging in the woods while learning to be a camp leader was a new form of immersion.

He quickly became enamored of the experience. Soon after getting off the bus and watching the director greet campers, Mr. Martin imagined being in that role someday. That desire, and his connection to camp life, only grew. Each season he climbed the ranks.

This summer will be Mr. Martin’s 14th at a Fresh Air Fund camp — and his first as the director of Camp Hayden-Marks. The news of this achievement hasn’t quite hit him. “This is something that I’ve been working for, for so long,” he said.

It’s a blessing for him to be able to say he’s reached his goal, but the even bigger prize is the journey and community that came with it. “For a long period of time, all my friends were from camp,” he said. Being part of that world has enriched his life. “I am what we call a true New Yorker. I don’t really travel that much.”

Camp has been inspirational too. Mr. Martin says that while people make their New Year’s resolutions in January, he makes them when camp starts. He sees being outside his natural habitat in the city as a chance to reset. Structured days also encourage healthy habits, like eating three meals a day. Then there’s the serendipity that comes with being in wide-open fields.

“There’s times at camp where I kind of just run for no reason,” he said. “We’re walking to our next activities and it’s like, hey, let’s race. Little things like that just help me physically over time.

Some of his favorite camp memories involve activities that weren’t tightly planned but improvised, like mingling with staff members and campers in the dining hall on rainy days, times when they play board games and listen to music and dance. “It’s really a cool thing to see because the rain forces everything at camp to kind of slow down a little bit,” he said. “On sunny days or weather-permitting days, everything is just nonstop. Go, go, go, go, go.”

Working with kids at camp set Mr. Martin up for a career as a physical education teacher, combining his interests in sports and teaching children. Camp Hayden-Marks had such a big impact on Mr. Martin’s life that he got a tattoo of a tree logo representing the camp on his upper arm.

Having camp alumni like Mr. Martin return each summer is “part of the magic of the Fresh Air Fund,” said Wendy Flanagan, the fund’s president and interim executive director. Mr. Martin understands the many adjustments kids have to make when they go to sleepaway camp for the first time, she said.

Mr. Martin said camp can be like a sprint: Getting to the end is an accomplishment. “They’re crying because they don’t want to be there. Then they’re crying on the last day because they don’t want to leave,” he said. “It’s really a beautiful thing to see.”

This summer, campers will return to Camp Hayden-Marks in person for the first time since the pandemic started. The Fresh Air Fund aims to reach close to 3,000 New York City children from low-income families across its various programs. A donation of $2,500 sends a participant to camp for a two-week session, and $1,800 for one to stay with a host family. The fund hopes to raise about $12 million this year. Ms. Flanagan said that the fund is rebuilding its sleepaway programs and putting pandemic protocols in place.

Tax-deductible contributions may be sent to the Fresh Air Fund, 633 Third Avenue, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10017. Families who wish to be hosts or parents who would like to sign up their children can call the Fresh Air Fund at (800) 367-0003 or visit www.freshair.org.

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