Oletha Harris never went to camp when she was a child. Around Ninth and M streets NW, where she grew up in the 1950s, no one did.
"Nobody had any money, and nobody hardly knew what camp was," Mrs. Harris says. "My family didn't know what camp was all about."
But Oletha Harris and her six children certainly do. Her four oldest are all planning to attend camp this summer--at once--under our Send a Kid to Camp program.
According to officials of Family and Child Services, the agency that hopes to send 1,100 underprivileged Washington-area children to camp this summer, the Harrises hold the unofficial record for Most Campers From One Family.
They set the record last year when Geneva (now 14), Herman (11), Michelle (10) and Kadijah (almost 9) all left home for two weeks of swimming, hiking and what-have-you. This summer, the same four children plan to do it again.
In 1983, the Harrises expect to go one better. By then, 7-year-old Elijah will have attained the minimum age of 8. There's no doubt in the mind of any Harris about how Elijah will spend two weeks next summer.
But concentrating so much camping fun in one Washington family can't blot out the troubles the family faces, all day, every day.
Oletha Harris is on public assistance, which means the family has an income of only $550 a month. The six Harrises live in a battered, cramped two-bedroom house on F Street SE, in the middle of a housing project that is littered with newspapers, broken glass and discarded household appliances.
Young men stand on the corner of 51st and F, smoking marijuana and nipping from bottles of wine. According to D.C. government figures, more than half of the adult women living in the immediate neighborhood are on welfare. It is hardly the best environment in which to raise a child.
A casual visitor might think it isn't the worst, either, to judge from the facility that's one block west of the Harrises' home.
A 5-year-old playground built by the city sits on top of a hill. It features basketball courts, swings, jungle gyms--most of what any child could want. Twenty D.C. neighborhoods that don't have such a facility would be delighted with it.
However, Oletha Harris says the apparent pluses of the playground are an illusion.
"I wouldn't let none of my children go up there unless I was with them," she said. "It's more dangerous up there than out on the street here. There's no supervision. And there's all the dope dealers and everything.
"That's why camp is important to my kids. They can have activities in a place where I know they'll be safe."
And the kids themselves? To them, camp will be a return to pleasant times they have trouble finding in Southeast Washington.
"At camp, you don't have to worry about nobody saying nothing about the way you do things," says Geneva Harris. "They all do that around here. It's not fun around here."
For Herman Harris, camp may bring a return to the glory of last summer, when he won seven achievement awards. That was seven more than he ever won around F Street, or at school.
There's educational value, too. "I didn't know how to swim before I went," Herman said. And now? "He'll go in the deep end this summer," his mother says.
For Michelle, the memory of a treasure hunt lingers. "We won last year," she said. She'd like to do it again.
Kadijah Harris is still talking about a turtle she saw in the Virginia woods last year. "I like camp," she says. "It's fun."
But without your help, no Harris can be sure of going. Neither can any of the rest of the children Family and Child Services has signed up.
We need about $100,000 to assure these children two weeks of growth and experience. If they go to camp, they will come back more well-rounded and more hopeful. That can't help but be beneficial to ourcommunity, now and down the road.
If you would like to help, please mail your gift, which is tax-deductible, to:
Bob Levey, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20071.