Bronx youth get ready for Camp Junior, named in honor of local teen murdered in 2018

Camp Junior, a free sleepaway summer camp for Bronx youth ages 9 to 15, is preparing to welcome 300 youth to Harriman State Park.
Camp Junior, a free sleepaway summer camp for Bronx youth ages 9 to 15, is preparing to welcome 300 youth to Harriman State Park.
Photo courtesy Fresh Air Fund

June 20 marks six years since 15-year-old Lesandro “Junior” Guzman-Feliz was chased, beaten and stabbed to death by gang members in the Belmont neighborhood. As Junior’s family and community celebrate his legacy this week and every day, hundreds of Bronx kids are getting ready to depart for a sleepaway summer camp named in his honor.

The Bronx Times spoke with Kayla Paulino, who is starting her third summer as the director of Camp Junior.

“I wholeheartedly believe that every kid deserves the opportunity to go to camp” — even if they end up hating it, she said. 

Camp Junior is located at Harriman State Park, about an hour’s trip from the Bronx, specifically for Bronx kids ages 9 to 15. The camp — which is free for families — is operated by the nonprofit Fresh Air Fund in partnership with New York State Parks, Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, the Office of the Bronx Borough President and the Palisades Interstate Park Commission.

Paulino said Camp Junior fosters plenty of Bronx pride while giving kids an alternative space — a “second environment” for them to feel safe and connected. About 300 youth attend throughout the four summer sessions, and campers stay from 9 to 12 days. 

A typical day at Camp Junior, according to Paulino, starts with breakfast at 8 a.m., then breaking out into groups for activities such as swimming, dance, martial arts and pioneering. After lunch, campers have “cabin time,” a quieter period for them to write home to their families and nap or decompress if needed — or play sports if they still have energy to burn. In the evenings, Paulino said everyone participates in what she jokingly called “cruise ship evening activities.”  

The camp was a lifechanging experience for Maraleny Infante, 18, who attended Camp Junior in its inaugural 2019 season. Her mom had encouraged her to sign up, but she was reluctant, having always been a “stay-inside, arts and crafts” type of person, Infante told the Bronx Times. 

She was nervous, but she and her twin sister both took the plunge — and ended up loving it. They met new friends and enjoyed having a break from the hustle of city life. 

“Everything was super positive,” Infante said. 

The following two seasons were canceled due to the COVID pandemic, but this summer, Infante will return as a camp counselor to help welcome other kids like her who may be nervous or inexperienced with outdoor activities. 

It all starts with parent drop-off, said Infante. “I try my best to be silly, welcoming and warm.”

When campers arrive, “just letting them be a kid” is the primary goal. Infante said as a camper, she was amazed to notice “no cars, sirens or people yelling outside when I was trying to sleep.” It really is an adjustment for many kids to take a break from the challenges of Bronx life and be in a safe, quiet space, she said.

And she said no camper can forget about Junior. At the camp named in his honor, people talk about him “all the time,” said Infante. 

Infante, 18, is returning to Camp Junior as a counselor after one summer as a camper. Photo courtesy Fresh Air Fund

‘He only had a kid life’

Junior’s mother, Leandra Feliz, visits the camp each summer. Photo courtesy Fresh Air Fund

Today, Junior’s mother, Leandra Feliz, lives in the Melrose neighborhood of the South Bronx. She recently welcomed the Bronx Times at a visit to her apartment, saying, “Welcome to Junior’s house.”

Her son’s presence fills every available space. Feliz has surrounded herself with blankets, pillows, photos, artwork, candles and other mementos bearing Junior’s name and image. His plaque from the NYPD Explorers program hangs on the wall next to a certificate for Most Improved in his eighth grade English class. Many of the items were gifted to her — sometimes by people she’d never met, she said. 

“I feel like I see Junior everywhere,” said Feliz. 

He was a shy, sweet and happy kid, she said. From very early childhood, he wanted to be a police officer and constantly played with toy police cars. As a teen, he joined the Explorers as soon as he could. He enrolled with a cousin who is now a police officer — a dream Junior never lived to fulfill. 

But his mother said he was destined for it.

“He never changed his mind,” Feliz said.

Even though Junior was shy, he approached officers on the street and in train stations to talk about his career path. And whenever he wore his navy blue Explorers jacket — which now hangs in a display case — “He was so proud,” she said.

Since Junior died at only 15, “He only had a kid life,” said Feliz. He spent a lot of time at home, never fought with anyone and was certainly never involved with gang members like those who killed him, she said. 

On the night of his murder — June 20, 2018 — Feliz said she was getting ready for bed when Junior said he was going out near their home in the Belmont neighborhood to give $5 dollars to a friend. She called him right before falling asleep, and he said he was heading back. 

But Junior never made it. A group of gang members apparently mistook him for a rival and beat him and stabbed him repeatedly, including in the neck. As he bled, he attempted to run to nearby St. Barnabas Hospital — where Feliz worked as a housekeeper in the job she still holds today. 

Feliz said she was awoken by her daughter’s boyfriend, who said Junior had been stabbed. As he made multiple stabbing motions with his hands, she was baffled.

“I never thought nothing like that,” she said.

But when she went outside and saw the yellow police tape, reality hit. 

Thousands of people later saw graphic surveillance camera video of Junior’s death, and the tragedy caught local and even national attention. Feliz said that neighborhood kids became afraid to go outside and some started carrying weapons to defend themselves. Parents were horrified by the senseless tragedy.

Feliz received gifts honoring Junior and words of sympathy from New Yorkers, strangers from across the country and elected officials from the Bronx and citywide. The Bronx Times extensively covered the aftermath of Junior’s death, including the trial and sentencing, the street co-naming in Junior’s honor, and the 2019 opening of Camp Junior.

While Feliz was grateful for the support she has received — “‘Thank you’ is not enough,” she said — she believes only her religious faith allowed her to survive the tragedy. 

“I get strength directly from the mercy of God,” she said. 

Kayla Paulino, center, said that Camp Junior came about after Bronxites and Junior’s family “demanded a safe space for Bronx youth” following Junior’s death in 2018. Photo courtesy Fresh Air Fund

‘Back in action and ready to go’ 

Seeing her son’s legacy live on through Camp Junior — and knowing how many Bronx kids are now connected to him — is now a source of strength for Feliz.

She visits the camp each summer, even though she isn’t very fond of the great outdoors — especially after seeing a snake on the camp grounds, she said with a laugh.

Feliz said she loves knowing that hundreds of kids like her son cherish the experience at Camp Junior and create lifelong memories there.

“I wish, hope and pray” that the camp will go on forever, Feliz said. 

And given the dedication of staffers like Infante and Paulino, it likely will. Infante said she hopes the youth under her care this summer will make new lifelong friends, as she did. She said many kids end up bonding over being from the same Bronx neighborhood — and fostering those strong connections is what it’s all about. 

“When they get back, they definitely know where their peers are,” Infante said.

The first batch of campers will arrive on June 27. Youth will be met by a staff of about 70 counselors, ensuring a safe environment where campers can connect with trusted adults as well as each other. 

“We’re back in action and ready to go,” Paulino said. 

Camp Junior is still accepting applications for this summer. For more information, visit

Reach Emily Swanson at or (646) 717-0015. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes