For the one-third of Metro Toronto's children who live in poverty, the summer holiday means endless days of watching TV or hanging out on street corners and in shopping malls. They have little else to do, nowhere else to go.
Many of these children have never swum in a lake, walked in a forest, seen a night sky full of stars or watched a sunset over the water while listening to the call of a loon.
But with the help and generosity of readers of The Toronto Star, the Fresh Air Fund gives these kids the chance to go to camp, including all Ontario camps.
Most importantly, "it gives kids a chance just to be children,"says Rose Cudney, administrator of the Star Fresh Air Fund.
The Star has found that fund-raising to send children to camp is tougher than collecting donations to help needy children at Christmas. The need doesn't seem to tug at peoples' heartstrings in the same way. But the children who are needy in December are needy all year round; their problems don't go away with the change of seasons.
Despite this challenge, the Star appeals to its readers each June for donations to send kids to camp. The focus of the fund-raising campaign is a 10-week series of profiles in the newspaper about camps and the fund-sponsored children who go to them. Because the Star covers all overhead and promotional costs, the donations go directly to helping children.
"It's a pure charity and I think that's why it has earned so much respect," says Star publisher John Honderich. "There's tremendous dedication and it's deeply rooted in this community."
Cudney says the kids the Fresh Air Fund sends to camp aren't named in the stories because it's important that campers who are subsidized are not stigmatized by their peers. "There's absolutely no finger pointing — nobody knows who paid what. We try to make sure that all the camps are fully integrated."
This means that many overnight camps are hosting fully, partially and non-subsidized campers all at once. But, no matter how much any child pays to go to camp, the experience is invaluable.
"It gives the kids a chance to get away from the city and try things that they would never be able to do," says Cudney.
This is what inspired the late Joseph E. Atkinson, publisher of The Toronto Star for almost 50 years, to found the Fresh Air Fund 96 years ago. During a heat wave in the summer of 1901, Atkinson wrote in his paper: "Awful as the heat was for all, it was most terrible for the children."
Atkinson, who grew up poor, vowed that if he ever had power, he would use it to help those less fortunate. In 1902, the Star sent more than 100 boys and girls to overnight camp and the Fresh Air Fund was born.
Although Atkinson's dream of getting children out of the city and into the fresh air is still important, the fund today focuses on helping as many children as possible. This means looking for the most bang for the camping buck.
Cudney says that two-thirds of the camps subsidized by the fund are day camps. "The dollar goes a lot further at day camp — you can send 10 times more children."
Day camps in Ontario are often run by community centres in neighborhoods where children can't even play in the local park because of the dangers posed by drug pushers and gangs. Cudney says the fund tries to cater to all of these communities when distributing money.
"We always ask ourselves: Is the city equally covered? Are there areas that we have not given funding to? It's hard to believe that in this city of ours that there is so much need."
What many of the children need most is something to look forward to, a bit of hope in their lives. day camps keep them off the streets and offer learning programs mized with fun. Children get to go to Canada's Wonderland, Ontario Place and the Metro Zoo - places they otherwise might never see.
"We try to do a little bit. We can't help them all but, hopefully, we can give some the chance to be child. For a lot of the children, it's the only good experience they'll have that year." says Cudney.
It has been 96 years since Atkinson launched the Fresh AIr Fun and Cudney says the goal of helping improve the lives of underprivileged children remains the same.
"The only thing that's changed is that there are more kids relying on us for help. The need is still there and it will always be there."
Donations to the Star Fresh Air Fund are tax deductible and the donors are acknowledged in the paper. Please make your cheque payable to the Toronto Fresh Air Fund, One Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario, M5E 1E6.
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