Campers sit around a camp fire singing songs at the New Jersey Camp for the Blind at Camp Marcella in Rockaway (Camp Marcella)

Lisa Ramirez was nervous about letting her daughter go off to sleepaway camp.

After all, Gabrielle Salazar, was just 8 eight years old – and blind.

“That was the hardest thing I had to do,” Ramirez says.

But it was the best thing, too.

Since then, Gabrielle, now 17 and a senior at Bloomfield High School, has not missed a summer in the woods with the New Jersey Camp for the Blind at Camp Marcella in Rockaway.

“Going to summer camp is like my safe haven,” Gabrielle says. “I know kids are not going to judge me.”

Camp Marcella is one of eight camps affiliated with the Greater Newark Fresh Air Fund, which recently wrapped up another successful season of sending kids to camp.

“Everybody came back safe and sound,” says Donna Johnson Thompson, executive director of the Newark Day Center, which runs the fund. She jokingly adds, “And we didn’t lose anybody.”

Johnson Thompson says the campaign to offer an outdoor experience to city kids was made possible through public donations, including its biggest fundraiser – the Battle of the Barristers softball tournament, played by members of area law firms.

The tournament, held this year at Brookdale Park in Bloomfield, raised $69,000 and included $3,429 in sales of T-shirts with the words “Greater Newark Fresh Air Fund” written on them. That’s a lot of shirts, but it was for a good cause.

The nonprofit organization has been sending kids to camp since 1882, relying on the public for support to make it happen.

Camp Marcella has been working with the Greater Fresh Air Fund for years to make the camping experience exciting and rewarding for children who are visually impaired and have other disabilities.

Paula Tarantino, vice president of the camp’s program development, says the kids had a good time, even though the number of campers was down. The camp normally has 35 to 40 campers, but Tarantino says about 16 attended this year because many children were in summer school to make up days missed because of snow during the school year.

“Our other plight is that its very difficult to find visually impaired kids in New Jersey,” she says. “We know they’re out there, but that they’re all mainstreamed in the schools, and its getting more and more difficult to locate them.”

Tarantino says the children have a great time participating in many activities: They ride tandem bikes, swim in saltwater pools, go on canoe rides and nature walks. Soccer, basketball and baseball are not a problem, either. The balls used have beepers inside of them and counselors clap their hands, with kids following the direction of the sound.

“Kids don’t want to go home,” she says.

Any reluctance that parents have is gone once they see the structure that’s in place, Tarantino says. The camp not only offers fun activities, she says, it also has a life skills component that helps the children to grow, develop and become independent.

Lisa Ramirez says her daughter, Gabrielle, has evolved into someone who is an inspiration for other campers.

“She really, truly is a person who other children get good energy from,” Ramirez says.

And Gabrielle can see how that she’s developed, too. The teen says the shy little kid she was long ago is now a social, engaging young lady, who likes conversation, connecting and bonding with others.

Sound like she wants to be a camp counselor next summer.

“I always wanted to do that,” she says.

With the school year about to start, the staff at the Fresh Air Fund will have a chance to exhale. But in January, the organization will be on the move again, looking for you to help their kids in the generous and gracious manner that you have for so many years.

To make a contribution for its programs and camp next summer, send checks to the Greater Fresh Air Fund, 43 Hill St., Newark, N.J., or donate by credit card atnewarkdaycenter.org. The names of donors have been published this season on Sundays in The Star-Ledger; the contribution is tax deductible.

See you around the campfire in 2016.

By Barry Carter: (973) 836-4925 or bcarter@starledger.com or nj.com/carter or follow him on Twitter @Barry CarterSL
http://www.nj.com/essex/index.ssf/2015/08/another_fine_summer_for_greater_newark_fresh_air_f.html

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