There was a time when Chester Waters Jr. was a self-described knucklehead.
“A lot of my friends were knuckleheads,” he told me. “We were those folks that were borderline, that could have gone either way.”
They could have turned out good. They could have turned out bad.
“I was raised on some of the roughest streets of D.C.,” Chester said. “Southeast D.C. Douglas Road. A lot of my friends didn’t have good outcomes. They passed away or ended up in the court system.”
There were times when Chester wondered what his outcome would be. It turned out to be a good one, thanks in no small measure to Camp Moss Hollow.
Moss Hollow is a summer camp for at-risk kids on 400 acres of treed and rolling land in Fauquier County. It’s run by one of our city’s oldest charities, Family Matters of Greater Washington, and it exists to serve children who might not otherwise get a chance to experience the great outdoors.
Moss Hollow is a testament to the soothing power of nature and to the transformative power of concerned and caring grown-ups.
Testaments cost money, which is why every summer since 1981 readers of The Washington Post have donated money to keep the camp running. You have always amazed me with your generosity. I hope I can count on your support this year.
What will your money do? It might help unclench a knucklehead.
When he was little, Chester lived with his grandmother and an aunt, seeing his hardworking parents on weekends. “I believe one reason why my aunt and parents chose to send me to the camp was to make sure I had something constructive to do in the summer,” he said.
Chester first went to Camp Moss Hollow in 1982, when he was 13. There was little downtime at the camp. He spent hours playing games, learning songs, doing teamwork exercises.
“It was almost like being in a live version of ‘Sesame Street,’ ” Chester said with a laugh. “You know you’re playing games, but you’re not understanding what they’re reinforcing.”
Chester was not always a model camper. (Knucklehead, remember?) “I acted out, like any teenager,” he said. He disobeyed the staff, bullied some kids. Counselors sat Chester down and told him how disappointed they were by his behavior. Something inside him clicked. He went home chastened.
“I spent the whole year waiting to show them that I had changed,” Chester said.
And he did change. The following summer, he returned to camp a new kid. He went on to become a counselor at Moss Hollow. In high school, he got involved in ROTC and after graduation enlisted in the Air Force, becoming a munitions specialist. After returning to civilian life, he joined Fairfax County’s Fire and Rescue service. Seven years ago, he attained the rank of captain. Today he is in charge of recruit training.
Over the holidays, Chester and his wife chose not to give each other gifts but to instead make donations to charities. One of those charities was Family Matters of Greater Washington.
“I told her what it did for me,” said Chester, 44. “It kept me straight. It introduced me to a lot of the things that taught me to be the man I am today. . . . It probably was one of the most profound experiences of my younger years.”
The boys and girls of today will be the men and women of tomorrow. Will their experiences be profoundly good or profoundly bad?
You can make a tax-deductible donation by going to washingtonpost.com/camp and clicking where it says “Give Now.” Or send a check, made payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Send a Kid to Camp, Family Matters of Greater Washington, P.O. Box 200045, Pittsburgh, PA 15251-0045.
Our campaign runs through Aug. 1. Our goal is to raise $500,000. We’ve done it in the past. With your help, we can do it again.
Every Wednesday during our campaign, you can help Moss Hollow while also treating your taste buds. The Clyde’s group of restaurants — now celebrating its 50th anniversary — is serving up a special treat at lunch. Order it and a portion of the proceeds benefit Send a Kid to Camp. This week, it’s wild Alaska salmon and local berry shortcake. It will be available at all Clyde’s restaurants except 1789: Clyde’s, the Hamilton, the Tombs and the Old Ebbitt Grill.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.