April 01, 2020 Category: Stories

Kayla Paulino Found a Second Home – and a Career – with The Fresh Air Fund

For Kayla Paulino, providing a safe and supportive space for New York City children comes naturally.  She developed her passion for working with children as a counselor at The Fresh Air Fund’s Camp Mariah – and is now The Fund’s High School Placement and Tutoring Coordinator and Assistant Director at The Fund’s newest camp, Camp Junior. 

Camp Junior was created in memory of 15-year-old Lesandro “Junior” Guzman-Feliz, a victim of gang violence, and provides children from the Bronx a place to explore nature, have new experiences, and learn essential communication skills like relationship-building, conflict resolution and problem-solving.  It’s a step to make a positive change in Junior’s memory and ensure children a safe space away from gang violence.”

“I know what it was like to grow up in the Bronx,” Kayla says. “I know what it was like to have nothing to do in the summer, or to be bored, or to stay home and just be limited in the summer. The Fresh Air Fund provides an alternative. It’s a place where kids have the opportunity to have an overnight summer experience, and to be themselves, and to be safe, but then to also be challenged and pushed. Camp is a home where they can get out of the city and know that there is so much more to do, and for free.”

Kayla knows firsthand the impact a Fresh Air experience can have because she was a Fresh Air Fund camper herself. 

Kayla as a camper at Camp Mariah.

After learning about The Fresh Air Fund’s camps and programs during an open house at her middle school, at age 11, Kayla and her best friend signed up for The Fresh Air Fund’s Career Awareness Program (CAP), a year-round program that includes, tutoring and mentoring opportunities,  job shadowings and a three-and-a-half-week summer experience at Camp Mariah. 

“I loved my time at Camp Mariah,” Kayla says. “I was the kid that counted down the days until it was time to go back. I loved swimming in the lake. After my three years at Mariah, I couldn’t imagine what my summers would be like without camp.”

 At age 15, Kayla joined CAP Teens, a leadership and Counselors-in-Training program. 

“It was technically my first job,” Kayla says. “I was challenged to strengthen the leadership skills that were already instilled in me from the Career Awareness Program. I was challenged to stand in front of crowds, and share my thoughts, and to make sure that my voice was heard. Then I was challenged to step back, and to realize that there are other voices that should be heard, and to encourage those voices to say their thoughts as well.”

“I grew from that experience,” she says, and she continued to grow and develop a career with The Fresh Air Fund.”

From Camp Mariah counselor, to lifeguard, to the Waterfront Director, where she trained lifeguards for every Fresh Air Fund camp, Kayla gained more responsibility and experience each summer. 

“Safety at the waterfront is critical,” Kayla says. “Our staff needs to make sure the kids are always safe. They learn how to swim and have fun – they even have evening beach parties – but first, and foremost, they learn about “buddy checks” and following all the safety rules.  

Each Friday at camp, kids have swim tests that allow them to move up to higher swim levels and take on more challenging lessons. Kayla recalls one Friday when a camper, who’d been struggling and having trouble reaching a higher swim level, began his third try at the next-level test – three laps and a minute of treading water. And halfway through his final lap, he looked like he might give up.  

“My co-waterfront director and I both jumped in the water,” Kayla says. “We swam alongside him for his final lap. And, he made it.” 

“That was really big for all of us because we had watched him try again and again every single day to make it to that final lap,” Kayla says. “Then seeing him on test day, it was important to help make sure that he wasn’t giving up on himself. We didn’t even talk about jumping in the water. We looked at each other. We looked at the guards who were watching. We pointed at the water. We jumped in. We just made sure that he got through that final lap.” 

Kayla went on to become the Assistant Director of Camp Mariah for the summer and now as The Fund’s High School Placement and Tutoring Coordinator she provides support for our Career Awareness students year-round. Now as the Assistant Director of Camp Junior, she wants to keep providing support, care, and safe spaces for New York City children. 

Kayla with Camp Junior campers.

“The Fresh Air Fund has guided me on my journey from childhood to adulthood and has been a supportive home for me,” Kayla says. “It is my second home. The mentors that I have at The Fresh Air Fund have been there for me from the beginning. The model that The Fund embodies, and the philosophy that we teach ourselves, and teach our staff, and teach our kids, it’s already something that I know I believe in. It’s for me. It’s for my kids.”

“It is my honor and my pleasure to make them feel safe,” Kayla says.  

With your support, more kids like Kayla can have summer experiences that help them set goals, dream big, and receive the support they need to realize their dreams.

Donate to The Fresh Air Fund today.