Time Many 7-year-olds around Washington are getting ready to spend at least part of the summer in swimming pools and on hiking trails. So is a girl from Fort Washington named Shannon. But the family background she will leave behind is far different from most, as my associate, Karina Porcelli, discovered last week. Karina's report:
For most of us, it's difficult to imagine the life of a child who has come from a disturbed home. We often forget how the other half lives, and find ourselves shocked and angry when we turn on the television and see another story about neglected children. When you finally meet a neglected girl, you feel a terrific respect for her strength and her endurance. She has assumed adult responsibilities from her mother and has sacrificed her childhood for simple survival.
Shannon is one such child.
In a few weeks, Shannon will be going to camp for the first time, where she will be able to be with children her own age, outside of elementary school surroundings. Being able to play with friends is a fairly recent development, since her mother feared the neighborhood where the family lived for the first six years of Shannon's life and kept her inside most of the time.
I met Shannon at her Prince George's County elementary school during her lunch break. She brought with her a Styrofoam tray containing five potato puffs, a regulation sloppy Joe, a carton of chocolate milk and an anemic piece of chocolate cake. She casually mentioned that the cake reminded her of a horror movie character.
Before Shannon went into foster care less than a year ago, she lived in the District with her mother, who is an alcoholic, and an aunt. One day, her mother said she was going to the store and never returned. Nobody has seen or heard from her since.
Soon after that, the aunt's son was murdered. Stunned at the situation in which she found herself, the aunt decided that, emotionally and financially, she could no longer support Shannon.
Despite her difficult childhood, Shannon is articulate and well-mannered. According to Julie Mayfield, the social worker assigned to the case, Shannon's mother must have cared for her well. She taught her daughter good manners, proper language and common sense, while sheltering her from their environment, Julie said.
Shannon is far from being streetwise, however. "I've been by myself before," she whispered, "for two weeks, when I was living with my mother, I had my own key . . . . I was scared sometimes."
"Shannon has never had a childhood," said Mayfield. "She basically went to school, came home and was with adults day after day. She never went outside and just played by herself.
"Now, if I had to describe her, I would say that she is a withdrawn child, timid. Usually a child like her would be angry, a hellion. But she is able to understand the problems. She knows that her mother drinks too much and she is able to separate the mother emotionally from the alcoholism.
"She has never been to camp before, so I think the experience will help her to make friends and to give her more self-confidence. It will also put her in a situation with similar children, so I think it will help bring her out."
Shannon and her foster family live in a well-manicured residential neighborhood in Fort Washington. She is able to walk to elementary school, where she is in the third grade. There are yards and playgrounds where she can play after school.
She is beginning to make friends with some of the children who live in the area. Her foster mother is a cab driver and her foster father is retired on disability. The family has had 10 foster children over the last six years and now have four living with them: Shannon, a 7-year-old retarded boy, a 2-year-old boy and a 1-month-old infant. The parents would like to adopt all of them.
For the time being, Shannon is concentrating on school, and even though it's a little early, she has her sights set on becoming a doctor.
But going to camp will be a welcome break from what has been a tumultuous year. "I just wish it could be longer," said Shannon.
So do all 1,200 kids who are scheduled to go to camp for two weeks each beginning Monday. But there is a strong chance that some of those kids will not get to go.
As you can see in the tally below, we are still far short of our 1986 goal. Won't you please help our campaign today? It costs $310 to send one child to camp for the allotted two weeks, but donations of any size are welcome, and all donations are appreciated.
SEND A KID TO CAMP SCOREBOARD:
In hand as of June 16: $63,979.69.
Our goal as of June 23: $200,000.
TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE CAMPAIGN:
Make a check or money order payable to Send a Kid to Camp and mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., 20071.