Why They Call It 'Camp Mariah'

A special place that inspires children to dream bigger dreams struck a chord in the heart of a popular young singer.

Parade (US) April 30, 1995. Text by Michael Ryan.

Mariah Carey has a new young man in her life, and she loves to talk about him.

"Andre is really, really cool." the singing star told me. "He's very smart, and he's got a great sense of humor. He wants to be a talk-show host. I think he'll be very good at it."

Carey met Andre last summer, when he and his production crew interviewed her. He doesn't have his own show yet — but then, very few 12-year-olds do. Andre interviewed the singer at a summer camp in Fishkill. N.Y., run by The Fresh Air Fund. "I was amazed at the camp," Carey told me. "The kids learn about computers and video equipment. They are learning invaluable skills they'd never get in school."

Mariah Carey was battling fatigue and a bad cold when we spoke. That daym she also was working on a new album, taping a series of TV spots and accepting major music awards from Sweden and Germany. But she came alive when she began to talk about the kids who have made such on impact on her life.

"About a year ago. I had the idea to start a summer camp to try to make a difference in the lives of city kids." she said. "Then, when I looked into it. I heard about The Fresh Air Fund. They've been around since 1877, and they were doing exactly what I wanted to do."

Every year, the fund gives 10,000 youngsters from urban neighborhoods the chance to discover a kind of life they have never seen. In five summer camps in Fishkill — and in the homes of volunteer families in 13 states, from Maine to Virginia, and in Canada — young people aged 6 to 1 8 learn about nature, the outdoors and their own potential. "For kids who are stuck at home and don't have the money to go to an expensive camp, this is an incredible opportunity." Carey said.

At the young age of 25. Mariah Carey is a phenomenon in the pop music world. In just five years, she has sold more than 55 million copies of her three albums worldwide and has had five consecutive No. 1 hits on the charts. Her Grammy Awards range from Best New Artist to Best Pop Vocal, and she has appeared in a string of television specials. I wondered why such a big star would be interested in such a venerable institution as The Fresh Air Fund.

The fund, after all, was founded in the 19th century by a New York clergyman who took children out of the squalid tenements of the city and gave them a few weeks in the homes and on the farms of country folk. Though The Fresh Air Fund still takes city youngsters to the country, it has changed with the times. "What really impressed me." Carey explained, "is that, even though the organization has been around for so long, it really has a grasp of what kids need today."

At the camp she visited last year, children aged 12 to 14 learned about a variety of professions in two weeks. "It's a Career Awareness Camp." Carey said. "A doctor will come in, or an oceanographer, and explain what they do."

What special chord had the career camp struck in Carey? As she explained it, she knew as a child what it was like to have her dreams disparaged. "My mother always told me I could be whatever I wanted to be if I kept at it and really believed in myself." Mariah told me. "But other people didn't give me the same encouragement. I told one teacher that I wanted to be a singer and was told, 'There are millions of people out there who can sing. What makes you any different? Don't get your hopes up.' I couldn't believe a teacher would actually say that to someone who had a dream."

But that rejection, and others like it, did not slow Carey down. "I was determined to be a singer since I was 4 years old," she told me. "Of course, most people who set out to do this do fail. But if you set out with the attitude, 'Maybe I'll make it, maybe I won't,' then you probably will fail. I wrote some of my songs, like 'Hero' and 'Make It Happen,' to encourage people to stick with their dreams."

In one sense, dreams are what The Fresh Air Fund is all about. "If someone's whole existence is stuck on a city street, then being introduced to a brand new side of life can make a difference," Carey said. "The fund exposes kids to the possibilities that are out there."

Although The Fresh Air Fund sponsors 10,000 children, it actually places 7000 of them in private homes with families who serve as hosts for two weeks — and frequently become important parts of their lives year-round. "Two of my backup singers, Kelly and Shanrae Price, were Fresh Air Fund kids," Carey said. "Kelly told me that she didn't know if she'd be the same person she is today if it weren't for the fund and her host family, she might have gotten into trouble or just have been hanging out on the street" Kelly Price recently had a reunion with members of her host family, and she plans on keeping in touch with them.

Carey's latest album, Merry Christmas, climbed to the Top 10 shortly after it was released last November. A few weeks later, she and her backup singers gave The Fresh Air Fund a yuletide gift — a sold-out benefit concert at New York City's Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which raised S700,000.

This summer, Carey plans to return to The Fresh Air Fund's camps and to bring many of her colleagues from the music industry along with her. "I want to teach the kids about the recording business and show them they can be singers, engineers, record company presidents or secretaries."

Last fall, the fund's directors made an announcement. They had renamed the year-old Career Awareness Camp at Fishkill "Camp Mariah." This summer, a ceremony will be held to officially rename it. "It's really flattering to me, of course," Carey said, "but it dictates to me that I should do even more."