How a counselor helped his young campers and himself have a worthwhile summer in 1964 – Toronto Star | Gmx Pharm

John Beach was 17 when he first set foot at Bolton Camp, an overnight summer camp for low-income families. It was the summer of 1964 that the now 75-year-old described as the “most rewarding” of his life.

The camp, then 40 kilometers north of Toronto, was founded in 1922 to provide summer vacations for mothers with young children and later for older boys and girls. It was funded in part by the Atkinson Foundation and the Toronto Star’s annual Fresh Air Fund campaign.

However, Beach did not come as a camper.

The son of an upper-middle-class doctor from Frankford, a village near Quinte West, Beach, came as a camp counselor.

He can’t remember how he ended up at Bolton. Maybe his aunt, a Toronto social worker, put the bug in his mother’s ear. Maybe Mom felt he should put into practice the skills he learned during a three-week leadership course at Bark Lake.

At this point, Bolton Camp spanned more than 300 acres and was divided into three areas, each with cabins, dining and meeting rooms, washrooms and a swimming pool. In the older boys section, ages 8-14, the groups were divided into three age groups, with Beach getting a booth full of 12-14 year olds. In the summer he got four different groups for two weeks each.

The first group was a bit of a transition, Beach concedes. “I was pretty new to this and I realized you didn’t want to get behind the curve with these guys.”

With the second group, he laid down the law early on. “At that age you had to tell them who the alpha dog was,” he recalls. “After that I didn’t have to anymore. They just ate out of my hand.”

As soon as the boys got off the bus and the campers were assigned their cabins, Beach confiscated their knives. “They were all carrying knives in 1964,” he told the star. “They were street kids”

He kept the knives in a cupboard – “that’s the rule, and that’s where it stays for the whole time we’re in camp” – next to his bed near the hut door. One camper who didn’t give up his knife voluntarily was ratted out by the others.

After this boy returned home, he sent Beach a cute letter with cartoon-style drawings on it. “He obviously wanted to make sure I didn’t give him a bad review,” Beach noted.

He was hired to write reports on all of his campers, which were used to determine who would return the following summer. “I gave everyone a good report just because I felt sorry for them.”

One day, Beach noticed a boy walking aimlessly and walked over to him. “You know, teenagers aren’t very articulate… He cried a little bit. That’s when I really realized for the first time, like, ‘Wow, these guys, they’re in a lot of pain and a lot of distress.’”

“All the boys” had mothers who were on welfare, he said. He surveyed his campers and found that few knew their fathers. “None of them lived with their fathers, and only about 20 percent actually knew who their fathers were.”

“Having never received meaningful attention from a mature man, the gratitude I received in return was both surprising and powerful,” he told the star.

By the end of the two weeks, the boys had built up a real esprit de corps. Competitions between the huts helped, as did an overnight stay in tents in the Albion Hills Conservation Area, a four-mile walk away. Beach fondly remembers them swimming in a stream at the edge of the forest, making campfires and telling ghost stories.

Beach didn’t realize the importance of his Bolton experience until years later, after he had worked as a musician in an “overprivileged” art camp for wealthy New Yorkers.

“When I finished the summer at Bolton I felt so good. I felt like a million bucks. And at the end of it? ‘Oh, it’s ready.’” Everyone was friendly, he said, but he wasn’t that happy.

“That’s when I realized how great it was to be in a situation where you could help other people — make other people feel good, you know?”

Toronto Star readers can experience that feeling by supporting the Fresh Air Fund. It has been sending children to summer camps for more than 120 years. Thanks to the generosity of our readers, she supports more than 100 day and overnight camps annually. With your donation you can help give more than 25,000 disadvantaged and disabled children the opportunity to attend a summer camp.

If you have been touched by the Fresh Air Fund or have a story to tell, please email

Goal: $750,000

amount charged: $719,687

With your donation, the Fresh Air Fund can help to send disadvantaged and needy children to the camp. These children have the opportunity to participate 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

Via Visa, MasterCard or AMEX: Call 416-869-4847

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