Growing up in the suburbs of Connecticut, the city of Hartford never meant anything special to me. My only knowledge of Hartford was of the hospital, the Civic Center and the state Capitol, which my class visited in fifth grade.
It wasn't until I first worked at the Heart-of-Hartford day camp at the Emanuel Lutheran Church on Capitol Avenue two summers ago that I had the opportunity to discover Hartford for myself. Since then "New England's Rising Star" has come to mean a great deal to me.
The kids at the camp, who come from the nearby neighborhood, amazed and impressed me in so many ways. Every day, they came in smiling with faith that the day would be a great one.
They came from across the street and down the block, many accompanied by an entourage of brothers, sisters and cousins whom they played with, teased and stuck up for no matter what.
The organized chaos began in the morning with our booming chant - "Can you feel your blood is pumpin'? The heart of Hartford's jumpin'" - echoing from the gymnasium. After lunch and a "rest hour" (trust me, no one slept) we went over to the YMCA to swim.
In the beginning, a lot of things about Hartford made me nervous. Going to swim at the Y was at the top of my list. The thought of walking 60 kids between the ages of 6 and 14, down the sidewalks of Hartford horrified me. Looking back, I can't believe I was even slightly concerned about it.
Our trip through the streets became my favorite part of the day, and was the way that Hartford was transformed for me from an intimidating and unknown city to a place I now love.
Once everyone had a towel, a buddy and a bathing suit we began walking to the pool. We lined up and crossed Capitol Avenue and entered the state Legislative Office Building.
The kids, with their braids, oversized backpacks and light-up sneakers, walked through the marble lobby surrounded by senators, reporters and lobbyists, to the tunnel beneath the building.
Hand-in-hand, their free hands dragging along the wall or tugging the kid in front of them, they passed historical pictures and memorabilia of Connecticut along their way. It was a good day when some of them didn't run off to test the moving sidewalk and fall flat on their faces.
After struggling up the escalator, we entered the Capitol, walked through it and ran down the great lawn to Memorial Arch. We crossed Trinity Street and came to the beautiful old carousel in Bushnell Park.
After crossing Jewell Street, we finally arrived at the YMCA and let the kids loose in the pool. A few hours later, following the inevitable locker room high jinks, we walked back much more slowly and quietly, counselors often with campers asleep on their backs.
We came back to have a snack and play basketball and foursquare until the kids left.
As I look back now, I can't decide what part I enjoyed the most: getting to know Hartford for myself, or seeing the kids experience Hartford, enjoying the activities it has to offer.
What I am sure of is that Hartford has a special place in my heart. Because of my experience there, every time I drive down a highway that twists through or alongside the city, a smile spreads across my face. I remember changing and growing as much as the kids I was helping to lead.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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