On my family’s summer trips to Harrisburg, every second felt like a magical discovery.

When we were kids, Harrisburg was our summer camp.

Along with my parents and two younger brothers, we would pile into our rusty van for the annual trip to Pennsylvania. My dad viewed all posted speed limits as excessive. So if a sign said max 60, we’d be doing 40 while other motorists rushed by uttering profanities.

We always left Ontario in slow motion.

But then we arrived, and life accelerated.

We stayed with family friends in Harrisburg. There were so many first experiences: First bonfire. First time in a tent. First time on a lake. First love. First time on a motorcycle. First drive-in horror festival.

Pennsylvania was like going to Mars: we crashed on another planet.

Every second felt like a magical discovery.

One night in Yocumtown, my brothers and I went for a walk, mesmerized by the fireflies. We had never seen bugs that glowed like Christmas lights. Kris, who now runs his own company, tried to catch one. Arun, now a corporate attorney, tried to disabuse Kris of any idea that we could safely transport a firefly home to North York to serve as a novelty insect pet.

Harrisburg was highlighting our developing personalities.

The three of us often walked to a nearby corner store owned by an old lady named Gracie. She gladly accepted our Canadian coins and gave us an incredible amount of candy for our inferior coin. Even as children, they could feel Gracie’s warmth and generosity inside that little store where 50 cents would get enough Tootsie Rolls or peppermint sticks to give four out of five dentists a panic attack.

We’d carry our bagged swag on the day’s planned road trip, usually a picnic in the park or a sightseeing adventure, or a body of water where Kris would look for rocks and Arun would float on his back until he got so far out from shore that he now it was my mother’s turn to have a panic attack.

Once I asked my dad if there were any sharks in the water. This should have been an easy “No”. Instead, he whispered, “I’m not sure.”

This is not what a child wants to hear before tiptoeing into the sandy abyss with a belly full of Laffy Taffy. But my dad didn’t know anything about the outdoors. None of us did. We were raincoats from the city with borrowed beach towels. It was possible that Arun was hovering a few feet above the Loch Ness Monster.

What Harrisburg did, summer after summer, was get us out of our ruts.

Our friends, the Benjamin family, had four children older than us. We were also very close to one of his friends, whom we affectionately called Mikey Baby. He introduced us to more firsts over the years: manual-shift transmissions; Queen’s music; Gettysburg; JCPenney; Superman; double loop roller coasters; root beer floats; and, ironically for an American, an obscure board game called “The Great Canadian Game.”

Those trips to Harrisburg were the highlights of the summer. I often felt like I learned more in two weeks than I did in the previous school year. I have almost no interior memories of Harrisburg because we were always outside, always busy with activities we never did at home. The Benjamins and Mikey Baby were ours de facto counselors at Camp Harrisburg, where our horizons expanded as we constantly learned about the world and ourselves.

As are all the children who have benefited from the Star’s Fresh Air Fund.

For over 120 years, Star readers have helped send GTA kids off to camp, snapping them out of ruts and giving them the chance to discover things magical. And every summer, I can feel the warmth and generosity of Star’s readers, just as I felt with Gracie many moons ago.

Your donations are like those fireflies: beautiful and impressive to behold.

Thank you for giving children the first experiences they will never forget.

Goal: $750,000

amount raised: $823,659

With your donation, the Fresh Air Fund can help send disadvantaged and special needs children to camp. These children will have the opportunity to participate in a camp experience that they will cherish for a lifetime.

how to donate

By check: Mail to The Toronto Star Fresh Air Fund, One Yonge St., Toronto, ON M5E 1E6.

By Visa, Mastercard or AMEX: Call 416-869-4847.

Online: For instant donations, use our secure form at thestar.com/freshairfund

The Star does not authorize anyone to apply on your behalf. Tax receipts will be issued.

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