June 13, 2019 Category: Stories

Camp Junior – Providing a Safe Space in Memory of Lesandro “Junior” Guzman-Feliz

On June 20, 2018, 15-year-old Lesandro “Junior” Guzman-Feliz fell victim to gang violence. As a member of the NYPD Explorers’ Program, a group for youth interested in law enforcement careers, Junior aspired to become a police detective. Junior’s tragic death touched not only his community in the Bronx, but people across the country.

In their grief, the community united and took steps to make positive change in Junior’s memory. They pulled together to ensure children in the Bronx have a safe space away from gang violence. Camp Junior was created to honor his memory and will be operated by The Fresh Air Fund in partnership with New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Bronx Borough President and Palisades Interstate Park Commission.

In preparation for Camp Junior’s opening, The Fresh Air Fund has been recruiting campers, developing fun and engaging programming, and staffing the camp. In fact, Camp Junior’s director, Ricky Cruz, and assistant director, Kayla Paulino, both grew up in the Bronx and are Fresh Air alums themselves.

“The Fresh Air Fund is the perfect companion to this story,” explained Kayla Paulino. “It’s already a place where kids have the opportunity to go away, be themselves and be safe but then also be challenged and pushed. Kids are given a home where they can get out of the city so they can learn there is so much more to do.”

NYC kids enjoy playing basketball, going on overnight camping trips and other fun outdoor activities while at The Fresh Air Fund’s sleepaway camps

Formally opening Friday, June 28, Camp Junior provides boys and girls from the Bronx, ages nine to 13, with a free summer camp experience. During this critical age range, when kids are developing their sense of self and creating goals for the future, Camp Junior gives them a place to do that in a supportive environment without the pressures of social media.

Camp Junior will provide “traditional” camp activities such as hiking, arts and swim lessons, and also encourage campers to develop confidence through activities like the camp’s high ropes course. The camp’s programming provides opportunities for developing important skills in communication, relationship-building, empathy, conflict resolution and problem-solving.

“Social and emotional learning is something that makes Camp Junior unique,” shared Ricky Cruz. “We’ll work with campers on how to handle conflict and different viewpoints. We want to teach kids how to manage their emotions. A lot of issues can be resolved with communication – it doesn’t have to result in violence. We want to provide them with skills that they can take home to be leaders in the community where they live.”

Kayla adds, “We want to get our kids to stop before they feel like they have to join a gang or they should get involved with someone who is in a gang. We understand that later down the line we’re creating tethers back into the community because our kids leave camp and go back home. We want our campers to bring the social and emotional learning and conflict resolution back into their communities so they can take a stand against gang violence.”

Affordable summer programs are very limited for NYC kids from low-income communities, and many children do not have access to green spaces to enjoy the outdoors during summer. If their community does have a green space, the kids and their families may fear it’s not safe. Camp Junior addresses this problem by creating more opportunities for kids from the Bronx to stay away from street violence and spend their summer in a positive and healthy environment.

Camp Junior’s waterfront, where campers will learn to swim and improve their skills

New York State Parks has committed to investing $2 million over two years to renovate facilities at Harriman State Park for Camp Junior. Located in Orange County, about an hour from the Bronx, this 47,500-acre wilderness park will be home to 500 Camp Junior campers this summer and up to 1,000 campers in future years.

While Junior’s life was tragically cut short, his legacy will live on through Camp Junior by giving Bronx kids a safe space to learn and grow.

Help us keep Junior’s memory alive. Make a donation to help support Camp Junior and other programs The Fresh Air Fund offers to kids living in New York City’s underserved communities.