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How a bunch of lawyers playing baseball just helped a lot of N.J. kids

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by Barry Carter,

It’s a lot of softball – and expensive – to play for one day.

The price for a double play, strike out or home run is $125. Give up a grand slam, it’s $500.

But it was worth it on Tuesday after more than six hours of softball for eight law firms and lawyers from Prudential. Their play – which can net anywhere from $70,000 to $100,000 – pays to send city kids from the Greater Newark Fresh Air Fund to camp.

“We don’t mind doing it when it’s for the kids,” said Mike Benak, an attorney with McCarter & English, a Newark law firm.

He’s not just talking about playing. Next year, the firm will organize the Battle of the Barristers Charity Softball Tournament.

That’s the reward for winning. For the second time in the last four years, McCarter & English lawyers are champs. They hoisted the trophy Tuesday night after defeating Newark law firm Genova Burns, 28-11, at Yogi Berra Stadium on the campus of Montclair State University.

The team was hungry this year. During preliminary rounds at Brookdale Park in Bloomfield, McCarter & English had a 4-0-1 record. In the championship game, the team came out smoking, taking a 14-0 lead after two innings. Genova Burns cut the margin in half by the third inning, but didn’t have enough fire power.

After going undefeated, 5-0, in preliminary rounds, Genova Burns started losing team members before the championship game. One player pulled a hamstring and four others couldn’t play in the final game because they had to play in another league.

Team captain Doug Solomon was scrambling to field a team. Players from other firms that were eliminated in earlier rounds pitched in, as well as colleagues from Genova who were able to play when Solomon made some phone calls.

“I would have liked to take them on at full strength,” Solomon said. “But at the same time, we realize why we’re out here.”

It’s all about the kids, many of whom are low income and would not have had the opportunity to attend camp without private donations from the public and the money raised from costly mistakes made during the tournament.

The teams, however, have to chip in more dough based on their overall performance in the standings.

McCarter & English pays the least amount, $5,750, since it was the winner. Genova is among second through fourth place teams in a division who have to pay $6,000 to $7,250. the The fifth-place squad has to cough up the most, $7,500.

It’s a lot of money to raise, but the way this game is played, reaching that benchmark is not impossible to offer a camping experience that gets young people out of the city for a week or even just for the day.

So far, about 100 kids have gone off to camp, which are overnight and day camp programs. By the end of the summer, some 200 to 400 kids will have been in the great outdoors.

“We’re going to send as many as we can,” said Donna Johnson Thompson, executive director of the Newark Day Center, the oldest social agency in the state that operates the Fresh Air Fund.

For those who would like to donate, send your check to the Greater Newark Fresh Air Fund, 43 Hill St., Newark N.J. 07102, or you can give by credit card at The names of contributors will be published on Sundays in The Star-Ledger.

This is the 33rd year for the tournament, but its relationship with the Fresh Air Fund began with two law firms. Gibbons and the then-Robinson, Wayne & Greenberg played for bragging rights. Players would go out for drinks after each game until they decided the money could be used to help someone in need.

Enter the Fresh Air Fund.

Michael Griffinger, 83, senior director with Gibbons, has only missed one tournament in 33 years, recalling the days when only lawyers played, and when the umpires were federal judges.

“None of the lawyers would fight with the judges, because they would have to see them in court the next day,” said Griffinger, who pitched two innings.

The rules have changed a bit over the years. The combined age of the catcher and the pitcher no longer has to be 100. And while the majority of the players are lawyers, some are employees in other departments with the law firms and Prudential.

Camps offer urban children cool respite from hot city days

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Since 1882, the mission of the Greater Newark Fresh Air Fund — organized by the Female Charitable Society and now run by the Newark Day Center — has been to provide camping experiences for inner-city children from the Newark area.

One-hundred-thirty-seven years later, that continues to be the mission of the nonprofit organization.

The process for children to attend is easy. Applications are sent to schools, both public and private, and to various social agencies in the area. Upon acceptance, parents and children attend an orientation in preparation for the camp experience.

And the camps where the children visit are carefully vetted and completely committed to ensuring children have an enriching summertime experience.

The Fresh Air Fund sends children to Camp Winonah in Harriman State Park in New York, and LifeCamp in Pottersville.

Camp Winonah is a residential camp offering an overnight camping experience for ages 6 to 15.

Children who attend Camp Winonah participate in sports, including swimming and canoeing; orienteering; academic enrichment; journaling; arts and crafts; photography lessons, and life skills group activities.

According to Sharon Baldwin-Montgomery, founder and executive director of Camp Winonah, the excitement the children feel is palpable.

Baldwin-Montgomery, who spoke at the Fresh Air Fund Kick Off Breakfast in Newark on June 5, said you only have to look and listen to understand how important the experience is for the young campers.

“One only has to hear the laughter of children swimming in a lake, hear them whisper to one another around the campfire that they don’t want to sing one more round of “Boom Chika Boom,” see them eagerly line up for my famous sloppy Joe or share in an anger management life skills group about how good it feels to know that they can be angry and to figure out the right way to act to believe that residential camping, day camp, or home stays are a crucial and important part in the improvement of a child’s quality of life.”

She said that through the Fresh Air Fund, she is able to “continue the positive life-changing work in residential camping to encourage every child who crosses our path to know and come to believe that their lives can be and can continue to be a success story!”

According to Kathy Cree, executive director of LifeCamp, “The mission of LifeCamp is to teach children the skills they need in order to lead happy, successful lives.”

Cree, who also spoke at the June 5 event, said, “We originally opened in 1923, and since then some of the skills children need have changed. New skills for success in the 21st century include computer literacy and STEM. Other skills — such as learning to swim, ride a bike or read — have not changed. Nor have some of the ‘softer’ skills: collaboration, communication, creativity, advocating for oneself, contributing to a team, conflict resolution and leadership, just to name of few.”

Cree said the children who attend LifeCamp, ages 6 to 13, have “an enriching summer experience that balances academics, arts and athletics with a large dose of fun.

“At LifeCamp the children are participating in so many enriching experiences — reading, science/nature/STEM, computers/robotics, arts and crafts, bikes, chess/strategy games, cross country, dance, drama, financial literacy, nutrition, percussion orchestra, phys ed, Project U.S.E., recording studio, values and yoga — the list goes on.”

This summer, Cree said more than 550 children from the Newark area will have the opportunity to attend camp in Pottersville.

Many children would love the opportunity

There are many children in the Newark area who would benefit from summer camp experiences. Below are just two.

Heading out for nature

According to Donna Johnson-Thompson, executive director of the Newark Day Center, a “sweet and caring” 8-year-old girl is excited about going to camp this summer.

She is a hard-working student, and her mom wants her to experience the “thrill of camping surrounded by the majesty of nature in a tranquil setting of the country.” This child is said to be sure to appreciate the wildlife and enjoy nature walks under the “watchful eyes of dedicated staff members whose mission is the well-being of children, teaching them in a safe and educational location.”

At camp, Johnson-Thompson said, “she will receive plenty of exercise playing sports and games with all the new friends she will make while forging relationships and teamwork skills that will last a lifetime.”

First-time camper

This summer, an “intelligent and loving” 7-year-old boy wants to go to sleep-away camp for the first time. Growing up in an urban setting, he has never experienced a rural environment. This camping opportunity would allow him to think about nature and broaden his perspective of the world.

His mom wants him to make new friends at camp; friendships she hopes will last a lifetime. At camp, he would have the opportunity to swim and play baseball, basketball and volleyball. In small groups, he and new-found friends will be able to explore the rivers, creeks and forest that surround the campgrounds.

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