The sun’s dappled reflection on a lake. The quietude in the forest. The lingering smell of campfire smoke. Sleep away camp is a summer ritual enjoyed by thousands of American kids, but with price tags regularly topping $11,000 for a season at exclusive camps, attending one is a privilege limited to an exclusive group.

Jack Kaminer, a former boys basketball coach at Scarsdale High School in the moneyed suburb north of New York City, wanted the outdoor experience to be available to all children, regardless of their parents’ income. So he did something simple: In 2003, Kaminer asked the owners of Camp Lenox in Otis, Mass., where he served as basketball director, to offer one free bunk to a child from an economically disadvantaged household. They agreed and, after one summer, promised to let the youth return each year at no charge. Kaminer rang up more owners and eventually created a network of 110 camps (stretching from New England to Wisconsin and Florida) that offers free rides to deserving kids; additional fundraising covers any costs for supplies or equipment. Known as Focus for a Future, the scholarship program allowed 342 underprivileged children to attend camp on scholarship last year.

“Don’t ask me how I got 110 camp owners to do this,” Kaminer, a sprightly 74-year-old living in White Plains, N.Y., tells NationSwell. “I pinch myself sometimes.”

Only children from families earning an annual household income less than $60,000 are eligible. Of those, Kaminer only accepts youth who receive strong recommendations from their teacher, which creates an incentive for kids to push themselves academically during the school year. Kaminer’s wife, Paula, came up with the key deciding question to get an educators’ approval: Is this the kind of child that you want to take home as a sleepover guest for your own kid? If they answer yes, then Kaminer is sure the child won’t act out.

Kids attending the camps are given the choice of how to spend their time. This allows each child to “discover and explore their talents.”

In offering low-income kids an unforgettable summer, Kaminer, who serves as director for Focus for a Future, hopes the program shows participants that another way of life is possible. Kaminer himself was a “project kid,” growing up in public housing in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood long before it gentrified. Through his own experience, he knows the value of having the opportunity to just be a kid during the summer. As a child, Kaminer attended a day camp in the city. When he was in high school, he paid his dues as a camp dishwasher, and later, worked as a counselor while in college.

Scholarship recipients experience the many joys of camp — some of which are things that many other kids take for granted. “We have learned that some of these kids have never had their own bed in their life to sleep on,” until they’re assigned a bunk, Kaminer says. At camp, “they can just be kids.” At first, most report being homesick — “all the kids miss their moms” — but within a few days, Kaminer hears children say, “I don’t want to go home.”

During weeks spent lakeside, the kids test themselves physically by playing sports, pretend to be Katniss Everdeen on the archery range, learn to sail and practice creative arts such as theater and ceramics. In choosing how to spend their time, kids “discover and explore their talents,” an experience that’s rare in the rigidity of a classroom, says Peter Scales, a developmental psychologist at the Search Institute, which studies patterns for youth to succeed. The camps also make an effort to foster a sense of belonging through unique traditions, “like a secret code that allows those who know it to feel embraced by something unique and special,” adds Michael Brandwein, a consultant who leads staff development at many camps and outdoor recreation programs. Once they’re in, Focus for a Future participants gain a “second home” and “lifelong friends,” Kaminer adds.

Through participation in various camp activities, city kids get to see that a whole other way of life is possible.

The director isn’t naïve, however, about his program’s impact. He knows that a range of factors influence whether a child can eventually escape from poverty, including education and family life. “We are only a component of the environment that impacts them. It begins at home, then moves to school, then the church or synagogue, the rec center, the local boys club. In summertime, it’s us,” Kaminer says. But without Focus for a Future, it can be assumed that many of these kids would watch television for three months straight.

The children aren’t the only beneficiaries. Often, camp employees can’t resist becoming personally involved in camper’s lives. Once, a day camp counselor approached his boss and said he cared for one kid so much that he would personally pay for his tuition. At another camp, a child planned to return to a foster home at summer’s end. When the camp owner found out, he decided to become the boy’s legal guardian. (The boy just finished his sophomore year of college.)

It’s now the dog days of summer and camps are in full swing. Soon, Kaminer will be visiting the ones hear his home. Paula, his wife of 47 years, says that her husband always wanted to own a camp to host poor, inner-city kids. “I look back and think somehow or other, he managed to do that…and make it come true without having to own it himself,” she recalls.

For those who weren’t fortunate enough to attend summer camp, it’s difficult to understand that the experience gives kids a chance to be wildly young and to grow up at the same time. But now, hundreds of children are getting that opportunity, regardless of economic status.

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