Moss Hollow campers learn about trees and other natural wonders


Jessica Richards is a program specialist at Camp Moss Hollow who is teaching campers environmental education. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist July 9

I nearly collided with a metaphor last week on my way to Camp Moss Hollow.

I was on Interstate 66, driving west toward the summer camp for at-risk kids from the Washington area. I didn’t expect traffic to be a problem — it was about 10 a.m. — but near the Sycamore Street exit in Arlington, vehicles in the left lane suddenly slowed to a crawl. I couldn’t tell why.

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

Then I saw them: five ducklings waddling along the median in a ragged line.

They looked so cute — and so exposed there on that expanse of unforgiving asphalt, no mother in sight. I eased by the ducklings, mentally willing them not to cross the two lanes of traffic. I didn’t see how they could survive.

But after I passed them, I saw in my rearview mirror the flashing yellow lights of a VDOT vehicle. I vowed to check on the ducklings when I got back to my office.

But first I had my annual trip to Moss Hollow, 400 acres of woods and meadow in Fauquier County. Your donations to the camp help support the work of people such as Jessica Richards.

Jessica, 34, is a new program specialist at Moss Hollow, brought aboard to teach the campers environmental education. She’s well suited for the role. Jessica maintains four community garden plots in the District.

“I personally like the challenge of having the kids say: ‘What is this? Why is this bug here? Is it a good bug or a bad bug?’ ” Jessica said.

When campers visit Jessica, she tells them about Moss Hollow’s trees — sycamore, sassafras and tulip, mainly — and about the role of plants in the ecosystem. (Longtime camp leader Michael Shirley handles the animals .)

Jessica teaches them about seeds and soil types. She talks about the food chain, about how energy is transmitted along it, with plants converting the sun’s energy through photosynthesis, then animals acquiring the energy by eating plants.

Those animals include people. Jessica oversees four raised beds that she and the campers planted with beans, tomatoes, squash, bell peppers, banana peppers and sweet potatoes. She hopes to start lettuce seedlings in a greenhouse. Kids can help in the garden and, eventually, eat the fruit of their labors.

Digging in the dirt might not be every kid’s idea of a good time, but Jessica thinks valuable lessons can be learned.

“You’re working with things that don’t speak to you at all,” she said. “The plants are not speaking to you. They’re speaking to you in a different way. It’s therapeutic.”

That’s what a week spent up close to nature at Camp Moss Hollow can be: therapy.

And what of those ducks?

I checked with Joe Wolff, manager of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s safety-service patrol program. Joe said VDOT’s Greg McCain was monitoring Virginia State Police radio when he heard a call about the ducklings near Exit 69.

“Greg responded and upon arrival observed five immature yellow and black juvenile ducklings repeatedly circling and attempting to cross the roadway,” Joe wrote in an e-mail. “Mr. McCain exited his vehicle and after observing a motorist stop in the left lane, Greg then signaled the adjacent lane to also stop.”

When the traffic stopped, the lead duckling darted across the road, its siblings close behind. They trundled off into the high grass. Apparently, the fluorescent yellow outfit Greg was wearing may have put the ducklings at ease.

“Greg is hopeful that they were reunited with their parents,” Joe wrote.

Many of VDOT’s patrollers have nicknames. Wrote Joe: “I believe Greg has earned the title ‘the Duck Whisperer.’ ”

Fowl play

Jessica and the other caring adults at Moss Hollow are sort of like “kid whisperers.” They take kids who are in danger — some of them in foster care — and show them something different: a tree, a deer, a pond, a few days away from the hot, crowded city.

This year’s fundraising drive for Camp Moss Hollow ends Friday. Our total stands at $257,991.50. If you add the $100,000 in matching funds from a generous donor, that raises us to $357,991.50. We’re very close to our $500,000 goal.

Please consider helping us get there. Donate at 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, Attention: Accounting Department.

And don’t forget: Clyde’s is providing gift certificates to its fine restaurants. If you donate $200 to $299, you’ll receive a $25 gift certificate. Give $300 or more, and you’ll get a $50 gift certificate. (Certificates will be mailed in August.)

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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