LONG ISLAND — Nobody says good morning like Chazz Guerra says good morning.
“G-O-O-D M-O-R-N-I-N-G,” Guerra half sang, half shouted into a bullhorn in front of the Great Hall. There are few things Guerra, a 25-year-old camp counselor, likes more than The First Day of Camp.
More than 200 Camp Harbor View middle schoolers were assembled in front of him on the sports fields, wilting in the hot and humid conditions around 9 a.m. on Monday — a tough crowd.
Camp Harbor View is a free summer camp for Boston middle schoolers on the southern end of Long Island in Boston Harbor. The Great Hall is the mess hall in the center of camp, with the ferry dock, sports fields, and high-ropes course to the NORTH and the pool and arts pavilion to the south.
Despite Guerra’s insistence that the morning’s nonsensical beverage-related camp ditty was a repeat-after-me song, the bleary-eyed middle schoolers resisted his charm.
“My mom signed me up,” Laila Whyte, 13, explained on the ferry ride over. Laila also came to Camp Harbor View in 2018, but the Mattapan resident said she would rather be spending the week helping at her aunt’s daycare.
Makaylee Goulet, 13, sat across from Laila. The two girls had never met. In fact, Makaylee didn’t know anyone on the boat.
Henry Blake’s parents sent him to camp “because I sat in a room all day playing video games.” In the Great Hall, after the conclusion of the breakfast camp song, the Jamaica Plain 12-year-old, if given the choice, might’ve chosen to go back to his computer.
Survival in middle school is about fitting in, constantly eyeing your peers to determine what is in and what is not. Liking camp on an island your parents sent you to or joining in repeat-after-me songs was, at least by breakfast, still definitively not in.
Then-Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and philanthropist Jack Connors founded Camp Harbor View in 2007 in response to a rise in summer youth violence. The idea was that if they could create a safe place where kids from different parts of the city could let their guard down and build trust, maybe they would carry those bonds back to their own neighborhoods.
The creation of that safe place starts anew with every new set of campers, every two weeks, four times a summer in the Great Hall. The 200 campers divide into five teams, or lighthouses, such as Mohegan, who wear blue T-shirts, or Great Point Light, clad in orange and known at camp as “GPL.”
Guerra, a counselor who has returned every summer since he was a camper in 2009, leads the purple-wearing Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse, known at camp as “M. Dot.”
Staff and leaders in training, former campers who return as high school students, play a key role in converting nervous middle schoolers into devoted campers. After a morning of dodgeball and basketball, M. Dot makes its way over to the arts pavilion. The assignment was to draw things they create and consume.
Jenzell Perguero from West Roxbury told Rosie Fawzi, a 19-year-old counselor, he doesn’t “consume” any music.
But when Jenzell drew a trumpet with musical notes coming from it, she asked again. All right, he admitted, he likes the way the trumpet sounds. Fawzi asked where he had heard the trumpet. He heard it in the Dominican Republic when he visited his family. She asked if he likes visiting his family there. Not exactly, he said, they’re all old and he doesn’t understand what they say.
“I feel that,” Fawzi said. Her own family speaks Arabic, but she doesn’t, she explained. Jenzell perked up a little, and from there, the conversation began to flow.
A few hundred feet away, lifeguard Theresa Devarieux, 21, was building trust in very different circumstances. She was in the pool with a Roxbury 12-year-old who was flailing his arms, trying to tread water, trying just to stay afloat, trying to pass the swim test.
“Keep calm, and keep your arms in the water,” Devarieux said soothingly. He tried — tried hard — and made it a few more seconds without grabbing Devarieux’s floaty. “You’re doing good,” she tells him. “I’m proud of you.”
Camp Harbor View has expanded beyond its original mission. Using the relationships built at camp, the organization built a year-round leadership training program for high school students and works to connect its families to social services, executive director Lisa Fortenberry said.
By lunchtime, some of the drowsiness had worn off. Plus, the team that chants and sings its team songs best gets to eat first. M. Dot, despite a valiant effort, was largely drowned out by the pitched duel between GPL and Mohegan. The cacophony was overwhelming; the Mohegan leaders were up on benches, while Carlens Rigaud, a 17-year-old GPL counselor, danced on tables twirling a bandana.
In the end, Mohegan won and got its chicken and potatoes first. “We should’ve won,” Rigaud said. “We’re going to get it tomorrow.”
By the late afternoon, a light rain began to fall, and camp’s magic was working.
“We haven’t even finished the day, and I’ve already seen friend groups being formed, campers doing the activities, campers laughing together,” said Wellbi Pérez, a 15-year-old staff member.
As Guerra sent his M. Dot campers back to the boat seven hours after his good morning greeting, he still had his smile.
“First day was amazing,” he said.
Back on the ferry, Makaylee and Laila sat together again — not by chance this time, but by choice. Asked if she made any friends at camp, Makaylee nodded “yes” and gestured toward Laila. It was a good day, they said, and they were ready to start it all over again tomorrow.