Life as a child growing up in Mattapan, 23-year-old Jessica Burnett remembered, could be tough going, especially during long summer days without school to keep her busy.
“You have to don this hard exterior,” she said. “I always felt I had to be tough
It is a thick skin, she said, that hundreds of Boston youths with childhoods like hers have shed this summer at Camp Harbor View, a disused military base turned safe haven on Long Island.
“Crossing the bridge onto this island and looking at the city from afar is symbolic,” said Burnett, a camp counselor. “You realize there’s so much to learn and experience outside the confines of your neighborhood.”
For Mayor Thomas M. Menino, in the twilight of his political tenure, Harbor View is “a little piece of heaven” and more. He and philanthropist Jack Connors founded the camp in 2007 in their quest to curb youth violence.
The mayor is scheduled to be there Wednesday. It will be another stop and another honor — the camp’s great hall will bear his name — for the retiring mayor. But this place, this camp in the shadow of the skyline, this is special.
“It brings me such joy to see these young people, who most of the time don’t get to be kids, have fun outside,” Menino said. “It’s beautiful to watch.”
In two monthlong sessions starting in July, Harbor View enrolls 800 children, ages 11 to 14, from across the city. Campers are picked up by bus about 8 a.m. and do not leave until after 6 p.m., after they have spent the day swimming and sailing and engaged in leadership activities and academic enrichment that includes robotics, computer animation, and environmental sustainability classes.
The youths pay just $5 for their month’s attendance, with the rest of the cost covered by private sponsors.
Despite drizzle Tuesday, nearly 300 children threw off backpacks and umbrellas to don haz-mat hoods and surgical masks during the Harbor View career fair, with more than 20 nurses and therapists affiliated with camp sponsor Partners HealthCare teaching campers about the medical field.
An emergency decontamination team from NewtonWellesley Hospital strapped counselors into plastic evacuation “med sleds” for a ride down stairs to the laughter of campers, demonstrating how doctors transport immobile patients out of a hospital in disasters.
Close by, other campers participated in a relay race with nurses from Massachusetts General Hospital’s intensive care unit, clambering into sterile operating suits before running to grab buckets of water and pour them into awaiting bedpans. “The team that will be the fastest is the one that will work as a team, just like we do in the operating room,” nurse Karen Ratto said.
Melissa Bicalho, 14, of East Boston wiggled on a red rubber disc as Spaulding Rehabilitation physical therapist Jorge Barrios tested her balance.
“I want to be an arthritis doctor to help people like my mom,” she said, adding that perhaps one day she would be able to lead such balance exercises herself.
Another group of campers gasped as they got to see their pulsing veins and arteries via an ultrasound machine.
That was 11-year-old Andrew Allen’s favorite activity.
“One day, I want to make technology and software that makes medicine easier,” the Mattapan boy said.
It was Connors, the longtime advertising executive, who saw the potential of Long Island’s shoreline six years ago, when Menino asked for his help in creating a safe space for Boston’s children to play.
Camp Harbor View, operated by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston in conjunction with the city, sits near a Long Island hospital he visited as a child more than 50 years earlier. His parents had taken him to donate blankets there, he said, as “a lesson in charity.”
“The camp is just another reminder of good people believing in good projects,” Connors said of the camp’s growth.
“If you start a fire, everyone will come to see the flame.”
Reflecting on the progress her campers have made since July, counselor Kyla Gallagher, 24, said, “A camper can go from being an anxious kid with a negative attitude to Mr. Outgoing, all smiles all the time.
“Watching the transformation that a kid can have in four weeks is astounding.”
globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AlyssaABotelho.