In his seven years at Camp Moss Hollow, this staffer has been a role model for youngsters


Moss Hollow counselor Harrison West at his graduation from Morgan State University. (Courtesy of Harrison West)
John Kelly
Columnist June 23

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” wrote the poet.

He could have added: “And full of things that bite and creep.”

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

That’s what many of the first-time campers who arrive at Camp Moss Hollow are worried about: bugs.

“You got some kids out here with the bug spray and the nets, and they think they’re going to fight off all the bugs in the world,” said Harrison West, a program assistant at the camp. “I level with them. . . . There’s no amount of bug spray in the world for these Moss Hollow bugs. They’re going to come regardless. The best thing you can do is live your life and act like they’re your neighbors.”

Bugs are just some of the mysteries that get discussed among the boys that Harrison has overseen in his seven years working at the camp. “We have to talk about all the bears and raccoons and stuff like that: how to spot them and how to keep them away,” he said. “They’re preteens, so usually the topic is the opposite sex. We start talking about that and school. But at the end of the day, they’re still kids.”

Harrison was a kid himself when he first arrived at Moss Hollow. He went to the Fauquier County camp once when he was 7, then returned at 18 as a counselor. Now 24, he helps plan the daily programs as campers move from activity to activity. He has a hand in planning the evening shows that are so popular.

Harrison went to Archbishop Carroll. He recently graduated from Baltimore’s Morgan State University with a degree in psychology.

“I’m planning to go to graduate school,” he said. “I’m taking a year off to try to figure out this money situation. But I’m definitely going to graduate school next year to study social work.”

His mother is a social worker, and his time as a Moss Hollow counselor has convinced him that there’s nothing as rewarding as working with kids.

“A lot of the kids that go there are from my community,” said Harrison, who lives in Clinton. “And even if I don’t live in these kids’ neighborhoods, I still feel like we have a lot in common because we chill, we bond. They have a lot to talk about.”

Harrison says every counselor’s biggest challenge is midwifing campers through their homesickness.

“Boys will be boys,” he said. “They get rowdy from time to time. They like to play in the dirt and run around and cause confusion. But the hardest thing when I was a counselor were the boys who got homesick and really wanted to get home. As soon as they found out how fun camp really was, they didn’t want to leave at the end of the session.”

Harrison is a strong male role model for campers who may not have one.

“There are a lot of kids who sometimes need one-on-one attention,” he said. “They benefit from it.”

And Harrison feels a sense of accomplishment, too. Not just because he knows how to ignore the bugs (pants tucked into long socks thwart ticks), but also because he sees the connection he forges with youngsters he’s seen year after year.

“There was this kid who I came up with,” he said. “He was my first camper. We spent a lot of time together, just he and I, bonding and having fun together. It was weird because over the wintertime I told him that after I graduated I might not be coming to camp. The guy started crying.”

Harrison was quiet for a moment. “I didn’t realize how much impact I had until that happened,” he said. “That was nice. It was kind of sad, but it was nice.”

How to help

Camp Moss Hollow is a summer camp for at-risk kids from the Washington area. Every summer, hundreds of youngsters between the ages of 7 and 14 go there. The Washington Post and its readers are strong supporters.

Your gift can help ensure more kids will get to experience the great outdoors. To make your donation, go to www.familymattersdc.org. Or send a check, payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Family Matters of Greater Washington, 1509 16th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036, Attn: Accounting Dept.

Our friends at the District’s homegrown restaurant chain Clyde’s are providing gift certificates to people who give to Moss Hollow. If you donate $200 to $299, you’ll receive a $25 Clyde’s gift certificate. Give $300 or more, and you’ll get a $50 gift certificate. (Certificates will be mailed in August.)

Our campaign ends July 11, so please donate today.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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