Passing the summer camp torch at Moss Hollow

John Kelly
Columnist June 3, 2012

“You can tell a lot from body language and attitude how they’re going to act,” says Donte Berry.

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

He means kids, boys mainly. There’s a certain swagger or flipness that marks a kid as a potential troublemaker.

Donte should know. He was that troublemaker.

“I rarely ever fought,” says the 23-year-old. “I didn’t get into fights in school.”

But he skipped enough class and was enough of a class clown that he still sometimes found himself in trouble.

“It wasn’t big enough to get me kicked out, just suspended,” Donte says.

In the course of his academic career, Donte went to 13 different schools — not, I should stress, because he was suspended from every one, but because his single-parent mom moved frequently: Southeast, Northeast, Fort Washington, Oxon Hill, Baltimore County . . .

And so you might wonder how Donte managed to graduate from college in May and start work as a football coach at Wakefield High in Arlington. One of the reasons is Camp Moss Hollow.

This is the time of year when I raise money for Moss Hollow, a summer camp in Fauquier County for at-risk kids from the Washington area, kids such as Donte, who first went there when he was 8.

“I wasn’t the perfect camper,” he says. “I was really in and out of trouble a lot.”

But the staff and counselors at Moss Hollow recognized that the way Donte was wasn’t the way Donte could be. They pulled him aside. They showered him with attention. They showed him things he’d never seen before.

“Being from this area, going on a hike — you don’t even know what that means,” Donte says. “Once you go on those hikes, it’s very interesting. The environment really interested me. I didn’t know a lot about that.”

Donte kept going to Moss Hollow. He stopped getting into trouble. When he was old enough, he was selected for the camp’s leadership training program. He became a counselor. He graduated from high school and went to Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, where he played defense on the football team and earned a degree in physical education and health.

This summer, he’ll return to Moss Hollow as an assistant program coordinator. He’ll scan the campers as they get off the bus, looking for kids who remind him of himself. He’ll talk with them, he’ll encourage them to try new things, to meet new people.

“I can’t get upset when they do the things that I’ve done,” Donte says. “It’s like you’ve got to pass the torch on to them, like the way the torch was passed on to me. You get those kids that have problems and you sometimes see yourself in them. And you can correct them — it’s easier for you to correct them — when you’ve been through it.”

Of course, it wasn’t just camp that made Donte turn things around. He said he finally realized how much pain he was causing his mother, who raised him alone while holding down the same federal government job for 22 years.

“As time went on, it really started hitting me: I need to get myself together. I’m laying a lot of stress on her. But she never gave out on me.”

Neither did the folks at Camp Moss Hollow. And neither, in their way, did the readers of The Washington Post. Your generous support helps Family Matters of Greater Washington, one of the city’s oldest charities, run the camp. From now through the end of our annual campaign on July 27 I’ll be sharing stories of Moss Hollow and inviting you to donate. It costs about $700 to provide a week at camp for a child from the Washington area, but any amount will be greatly appreciated.

To make a tax-deductible donation, go to washingtonpost.com/camp. Click where it says “Give Now,” and designate “Send a Kid to Camp” in the gift information. Or mail a check payable to “Send a Kid to Camp” to Send a Kid to Camp, P.O. Box 96237, Washington, D.C. 20090-6237.

“I know it was hard on her,” Donte says of the grief he put his mother through. “When I was younger I was just . . . I know it was tough. And I do give the camp a lot of credit. I think it basically helped raise me.”

To read previous columns by John Kelly, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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