August 15, 2004
Camp Thrills: Seeing the Stars, and Then Seeing
By Stephanie Rosenbloom
FISHKILL, N.Y. - Fresh Air Fund campers were playing a hillside
game of tag when, just before sunset, a black Mercedes limousine
emerged from the woods and rolled to a stop.
The children froze. A car door opened. Then came a collective,
ear-splitting scream: "Mah-ri-ah!"
Mariah Carey, who donated $1 million to the Fresh Air Fund in
1995 and has a camp named in her honor, was walking up
the grassy slope in open-toed heels, a cropped top and jean shorts
with the words "Automatic Princess" across the back.
"What are we playing?" Ms. Carey asked as the young
residents of Camp Mariah engulfed her, fingering her long, crimped
hair, reaching their arms around her bare waist and taking turns
balancing her sunglasses on their noses.
They stood there in the dying light, speaking in hushed tones,
occasionally erupting into laughter, as if sharing secrets at
a sleepover party. The octave-scaling voice that Ms. Carey shows
off in songs like "Hero" and "Emotions" was
husky and low as she responded to a flurry of questions about
her music and her life.
When their patter subsided and the game of tag resumed, Ms. Carey
joined right in, slipping out of her high heels and
running barefoot through the grass.
She is a swift runner. As a teenager Ms. Carey sprinted toward
a Grammy Award-winning future, secure, she said, in
herself and her talent. But she was also running from something.
"I knew I didn't want to be where I was," Ms. Carey
said while taking a break from the evening's activities in the
camp director's cabin. "I knew that I needed to elevate myself
in terms of just living. You know what I mean? Just having the
life that I wanted to live. I didn't want to open the refrigerator
and not have food. I didn't want to feel like the kid with the
holes in her sneakers."
While shabby shoes are no longer a concern, Ms. Carey still identifies
with Fresh Air Fund children because, like them, she grew up poor
with big dreams.
Fittingly, Camp Mariah, one of five Fresh Air Fund camps in Fishkill
for children from New York City, is a career awareness camp, where
the work needed to turn dreams into realities is carried out.
Over the course of three years, campers from 12 to 14 explore
career paths and attend classes including journalism, photography,
television and video production. There are also events in New
York City during the school year, including a career fair and
visits to successful companies.
It is the kind of camp Ms. Carey said she wished she could have
Instead, she went to a publicly funded camp, which she called
horrible. She also attended a performing arts camp, she said,
for which her family had to "scrape together" money.
But Ms. Carey said she believed that hardship could be a source
"Obviously music was my love," Ms. Carey said, "But
I think I worked twice as hard as a lot of people who maybe had
same dreams but they had it a little easier so they weren't as
For more than 125 years, the Fresh Air Fund has been providing
needy city children with summer vacations at upstate camps and
with host families throughout the Northeast and Canada.
"People say their lives were completely changed, just by
going up to a host family or to different camps," Ms. Carey
said. "They say that before, they had never seen trees and
grass and lakes or anything like that. Just that experience in
and of itself is amazing, that you can just lie out and look at
The only star the children were gazing at that night, however,
was Ms. Carey.
"I love her so much, it's not even funny," said Britnee
Jackson, 12, of Queens. "I think she's so gorgeous. Some
people you meet in person and they act conceited. She wasn't.
She gave us hugs. She was very kind."
Michael Mitchell, 13, of Harlem, agreed. "She's a great
influence on children," he said. "She gave me a hug
and said, 'Good luck in the future.' I'm going to take that and
write it on my socks."
It was after 9 p.m. when Britnee, Michael and other campers gave
Ms. Carey the final hugs and high fives of the evening
in the dining hall. Soon the campers would be lying in their beds,
listening to the crickets. Ms. Carey, on the other hand, planned
to unleash her own high notes during a late-night recording session
"Have the best summer of your lives," she said to the
campers with a smile. "And lots of love to you all."
Families who would like to open their homes to Fresh Air Fund
children or register children for a summer vacation can call (800)
367-0003. Tax-deductible contributions to the fund can be made
through its Web site, The Fresh
Air Fund. They can also be sent to the Fresh Air Fund, 633
Third Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017.