Braving pouring rain — and even facing her van breaking down at the beginning of her 60-mile trip from New York City to Fishkill — the superstar eventually arrived to hundreds of cheering campers.
“I’ve been wanting to see you guys forever; it’s taken me so long to get here,” Carey told the kids.
“To think that it’s been going on for that long is unbelievable,” she later told PEOPLE exclusively of the anniversary of her camp, which allows middle schoolers to explore their interests in film, photography, fashion, international relations and more.
Carey, who explained to the campers that she had a “difficult” childhood and frequently moved around, got involved with the camp because of her own summer camp experience.
She sits on the board of the Fresh Air Fund, which allows low-income middle schoolers in N.Y.C. to go to summer camps upstate and with host families. The organization also provides development opportunities throughout the year.
“I went to one camp that I hated. I really did not have a good experience,” recalled the singer. “I try to make the best of whatever situation I’m in, and sometimes I had a lot of fun, sometimes I didn’t.”
At her camp, campers participate in activities like swimming and drama, but Camp Mariah is also a career-awareness camp — which Carey told campers was “the most important thing” in a Q&A session during her visit. She also told them how she started her own singing career at age 12 as a result of her childhood.
“I had kind of a tough time growing up with my family and stuff like that, so music was my sole inspiration really,” she said when a camper asked who inspired her. “So I kind of didn’t have that one person that I said, ‘That’s who I want to be.’ I had to figure it out on my own. So I started working very young, I worked, I did background vocals … learned about the studio, really put the time in.”
One camper who met Carey, Caroline Xiong, 13, also writes music and looks up to the singer-songwriter.
“For such a huge person in media to really be helping kids in New York City, it’s just really crazy and awesome,” she told PEOPLE.
Ridwan Olatilewa, meanwhile, had met Carey before when he attended the camp as a middle schooler. Now the director of Camp Tommy, another Fresh Air Fund camp, during the summer and a math teacher in N.Y.C. for the rest of the year, he credits the camp with putting him on his career path — and said meeting Carey allowed him to find “a role model.”
“I thought, ‘This is a person who really is about what she is doing,'” he told PEOPLE. “And then realizing that I would be able to go to a camp that she is a huge part of, and then even just thinking about all that I’ve gotten from this camp, too, really makes me think, ‘Yes, Mariah Carey is that person.'”
Carey’s music also inspired ballerina Misty Copeland, who visited the campers the same day to talk about her experiences and throw an impromptu dance party.
“It’s just amazing to be able to give back to them what she gave to me,” Copeland, 36, told PEOPLE on-site. “Hearing Mariah Carey’s music for the first time at 7 years old changed my life. I wouldn’t be a ballerina if it wasn’t for her. Hearing her music motivated me to start choreographing.”
The camp holds a special place in Carey’s career as well, as the site of her 1996 music video for “Always Be My Baby.”
“This place really hasn’t changed that much. It just felt very nostalgic,” said Carey. “I was pretty much a kid when I first started in this business, so I would be up here and I would race with the kids! It was just being with the kids and feeling their energy.”
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“They asked me if they could come back tomorrow! They’re a lot, but they give me so much love in return,” she said about her rambunctious kids. “I think Nick [Cannon] and I have done pretty well in co-parenting, staying friends with each other so that we can talk about like, ‘Okay, Rocky did this today, and maybe he needs to hear from you why he shouldn’t feel this way about this subject.'”
Along with raising her children, Carey is currently writing a memoir, which has been “therapeutic” and “cathartic.”
She also has an idea for a new album to follow 2018’s Caution, but currently, she’s planning a package to celebrate the upcoming 25th anniversary of her iconic holiday album Merry Christmas.
After all, says the star: “Summers are great, but I always loved Christmas the most.”