Even before the bus pulled up on Olney Street in Dorchester that morning nine summers ago and Jamal Grant climbed aboard with his younger brother, he had tears rolling down his cheeks.
“I didn’t want to go,’’ he said. “I didn’t want to go at all. I was crying. First year. First day. First session. I was literally crying on the bus.’’
Grant, then 14, was used to his neighborhood “camp,’’ where he honed his basketball jump-shot safe within a warm cocoon of friends and classmates. That was fun. That was good enough.
Then, to make matters worse, the busload of strange kids from some of Boston’s at-risk neighborhoods broke into hokey camp songs. As the yellow bus headed toward a rickety bridge and the harbor island beyond it on that sultry day in 2007, here’s what Jamal Grant was thinking: “I’m too cool for this.’’
He was bound for a place he’d never heard of, a place where he considered the free sneakers and hoodies and backpacks welcome swag, and nothing more.
“I remember saying to my brother Jaime, ‘This place is beautiful; too bad we’re never coming back,’ ‘’ Grant, now 23, told me the other day. “Little did I know that the camp would be the organization that had the single greatest impact on my life.’’
Now hold on a minute. When people tell me things like that, my hyperbole meter goes off. Really? You get on a bus. You go to camp. You meet some people. And your life changes?
“At Camp Harbor View, you find out who you’re going to become,’’ Grant assured me. “You find out who you’re going to be.’’
That’s what Jamal Grant did. And he can prove it. More on that in a bit.
First, a quick primer on this special place in the harbor that began its newest season on Tuesday.
It’s the brainchild of then-Mayor Tom Menino and Boston businessman Jack Connors. In late 2006, Menino was worried about violence among teens in many city neighborhoods. Connors remembered visiting Long Island when he was a young boy. The city now owned the place, a former military base, and the mayor and the businessman had an idea. By the next summer, on the same day a young and unhappy Jamal Grant climbed aboard the bus, Camp Harbor View welcomed its first 300 campers.
In the years since, Connors has raised $68 million, and nearly 4,000 campers have cycled through the camp’s two, four-week summer sessions.
For Grant, there were little lessons at first. He saw kids who didn’t have the same stable home life he sometimes took for granted. What would happen to him if his parents, who came to Boston from Trinidad and Tobago in the 1980s, didn’t check his homework each night? How tempting would the allure of street drugs be in the grip of poverty and hopelessness?
“I started to understand that not everybody had the support that I had, and that was extremely humbling to me,’’ he said. “Things are not always black and white.’’
He thrived at the camp, becoming its first camper to become a counselor there. “My second family,’’ he said.
It’s not just a place of rock walls and ping-pong tables. The camp’s Discovering Justice Program piqued his interest in the law. Networking with visiting executives there led to an important internship at Hasbro. A camp scholarship helped send him to college. “That is the direct result of the fire that Camp Harbor View lit under me,’’ he said.
Today, a graduate of UMass Lowell, he’s a mechanical and aerospace engineer at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington. He’s founded a nonprofit mentoring firm.
Jamal Grant has a message to the new campers who are being picked up this week for the trip to Long Island.
“Life gives us big gifts disguised in small packages,’’ he said. “That camp has the ability to change Boston.’’
It’s changed a young man who once sulked on a bus bound for a place that would change his point of view, broaden his horizons, shape his life.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher