When we were kids, Harrisburg was our summer camp.
With my parents and my two younger brothers, we piled into our rusty station wagon for the annual trip to Pennsylvania. My father considered all posted speed limits to be excessive. So if a sign said a maximum of 60 we would do 40 as other motorists drove past profanity.
We were always leaving Ontario in slow motion.
But then we would arrive – and life would get out of hand.
We stayed with family friends in Harrisburg. There have been so many first experiences: First bonfire. First time in a tent. First time in a lake. First love. First time on a motorcycle. First Drive-In Horror Festival.
Pennsylvania was like going to Mars: we crashed on another planet.
Every second was like a magical discovery.
One night in Yocumtown, my brothers and I walked outside, mesmerized by the fireflies. We had never seen bugs that glowed like Christmas lights. Kris, who now runs her own business, tried to catch one. Arun, who is now a corporate lawyer, tried to disabuse Kris of any idea that we could safely transport a firefly to North York to serve as a pet insect.
Harrisburg was shining a light on our developing personalities.
The three of us would often walk to a nearby corner store owned by an elderly woman named Gracie. She happily accepted our Canadian coins and gave us an insane amount of candy for our inferior change. Even as kids, you could feel Gracie’s warmth and generosity inside that cramped store where 50 cents got you enough Tootsie Rolls or peppermint sticks to give four out of five dentists a meltdown. panic.
We would take our bagged loot on the planned road trip for the day, usually a picnic in the park or a sightseeing adventure, or a body of water where Kris chased rocks and Arun floated on his back until drifted so far from shore that it was now my mother’s turn to have a panic attack.
Once I asked my father if there were any sharks in the water. It should have been an easy “No”. Instead, he whispered, “I’m not sure.”
Not what a child wants to hear before tiptoeing into the sandy abyss with a belly full of Laffy Taffy. But my father did not know the great outdoors. None of us did. We were city dwellers on borrowed beach towels. It was possible that Arun was floating a few feet above the Loch Ness Monster.
What Harrisburg has done, summer after summer, is get us out of our routines.
Our friends, the Benjamin family, had four children older than us. We were also very close to a friend of theirs, whom we affectionately called Mikey Baby. It has introduced us to other firsts over the years: manual transmissions; Queen’s music; Gettysburg; JCPenney; Superman; double loop roller coaster; root beer floats; and, ironically for an American, an obscure board game called “The Great Game of Canada.”
These trips to Harrisburg were a highlight of the summer. I often felt like I learned more in two weeks than in the previous school year. I have almost no indoor memories of Harrisburg because we were always outdoors, always engaged in activities we never did at home. The Benjamins and Mikey Baby were our de facto counselors at Camp Harrisburg, where our horizons expanded as we constantly learned about the world and ourselves.
Like all the children who have benefited from the Fresh Air Fund of the Star.
For over 120 years, Star readers have helped send GTA kids to camp, breaking them out of routine and giving them a chance for magical discovery. And every summer, I can feel the warmth and generosity of Star readers, just as I did with Gracie many moons ago.
Your donations are like those fireflies: beautiful and impressive to see.
Thank you for giving children first experiences they will never forget.
Amount collected: $823,659
With your donation, the Fresh Air Fund can help send underprivileged and special-needs children to camp. These children will have the chance to participate in a camp experience that they will cherish for a lifetime.
How to make a donation
By cheque: Mail to the Toronto Star Fresh Air Fund, One Yonge St., Toronto, ON M5E 1E6.
By Visa, Mastercard or AMEX: Dial 416-869-4847.
On line: 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.