February 25, 2020 Category: Stories

Camp Tommy: 20 Years of Transforming the Lives of Boys from New York City

Each summer, 500 New York City boys take a two-hour ride north to a place that, for many of them, is unlike anything they’ve ever known before. It’s a more than 2,000-acre expanse of lush, green forest with lakes, ponds, streams and hiking trails through the woods.

This is Camp Tommy, The Fresh Air Fund’s camp for boys ages 12-15, named for longtime Fresh Air Fund supporter Tommy Hilfiger.

More than 10,000 boys from New York City have attended Camp Tommy since it opened 20 years ago

For many of the campers, it’s their first time sleeping away from home, and although they’re only 65 miles away, it can feel like a different world.

“The contrast between city streets and life at camp was night and day,” recalled Omarr Henry, who grew up in the South Bronx and attended Camp Tommy from 2003 to 2005. “In my neighborhood there was violence and there were sirens at night, a sound we took for granted as part of our day-to-day life…Camp gave me a nice escape, a chance to breathe freely and relax.”

In the 20 years since it opened, more than 10,000 boys have attended Camp Tommy. While the takeaways aren’t the same for each camper, they each leave with a broader perspective.  

According to Camp Tommy Director Ridwan Olatilewa, it’s all designed to expose campers to new ideas, experiences and possible career paths at a pivotal time in their lives when they’re starting to figure out who they are. Ridwan knows what a difference The Fresh Air Fund can make in a young man’s life. After all, he is a Fresh Air Fund alum of The Fund’s Career Awareness Program and Camp Mariah.

“I honestly do believe in the idea that you cannot be what you cannot see,” Ridwan said. “If kids don’t know about different opportunities that exist in the world, then they won’t know about all of their options for a career. Everyone has different talents and circumstances. At camp, the boys become more aware that they have options. Exposure really helps to broaden their horizons.”

Camp Tommy Director Ridwan Olatilewa spending quality time with several campers

The days are fairly structured – campers’ time is scheduled from breakfast at 8:00 a.m. to lights out at roughly 9:30 p.m. Campers participate in traditional camp activities, like swimming, sports and hiking. They also learn skills in workshops like woodworking and gain confidence on the high ropes course. Camp Tommy encourages the boys to support each other as they step outside their comfort zones.

“There aren’t a lot of places in New York City where young men can come together and be who they are,” Ridwan said. “Camp Tommy is a place where everyone is accepted, where everyone can come be their absolute selves with no worries of being judged.”

That atmosphere of acceptance invites the young men to be vulnerable, as Camp Tommy alum Omarr observed. And that vulnerability leads them to see that, despite their varied backgrounds, they are far more alike than different – a lesson Omarr still carries with him today.

“We would let our guards down, and that’s not easy for teenage boys,” Omarr said. “After a brief time together, we were brothers, seeing more similarities than differences. And that diversity among my fellow campers prepared me for my adult life in so many important ways.”

Today, Omarr works in the entertainment industry in New York, managing a stylist and booking talent for different brands for events and digital campaigns, and he attributes many of the skills he has now to what he learned at Camp Tommy. And he’s not alone.

Tommy Hilfiger with two Fresh Air children at the Camp Tommy groundbreaking in 1999

“I know many people who, like myself, wouldn’t be where they are today without The Fresh Air Fund,” Ridwan said. “The organization has a saying, ‘A summer can last a lifetime’ – and it really does.”

You can help change the lives of thousands of New York City children by giving them new, transformative summer experiences. Make a donation to The Fresh Air Fund today.