According to legend, Old Man Clutch was a Confederate soldier. He literally lost his head in the Civil War. So ever since, he has made it his business to get even by scaring the daylights (and, more often, the moonlights) out of campers.

"I hear the same story every year. The counselors are always saying, 'Old Man Clutch is gonna get-t-t-t-t you. I'm used to it," says 12-year-old Vakisla, a five-year veteran of camp.

But her 12-year-old foster sister Marsha has been to camp for only one summer. And she isn't used to Old Man Clutch at all.

"The stories scare me," Marsha said. "Sometimes I think there really is an Old Man Clutch, running around in the woods." But then she smiled and added: "I guess that's part of what's supposed to happen at camp, huh?"

That and many more adventures just like it, Marsha. And as long as my mailbox remains pleasantly packed, those adventures will belong to kids like Vakisla and Marsha for the 38th summer in a row.

These two girls are among 1,100 Washington-area children who are scheduled to attend three camps in rural Virginia this summer. If all goes well, our Send a Kid to Camp fund-raising campaign is going to pay their way.

The camps are run by Family and Child Services, Washington's oldest social welfare agency. Campers attend one of four two-week sessions. Vakisla and Marsha have spaces reserved at Camp Goodwill in the second session (mid-July). They say they can't wait -- because Goodwill is the camp that their closest friends attend.

"All around school Barnard Elementary, near the girls' home on New Hampshire Avenue NW we've been hearing, 'Y'all going to camp? I'm going! I'm going!' " said Marsha.

"We talk about it the whole year," added Vakisla. "About how we're gonna have fun and stuff. Every September, my friends and me will be talking about what fun we had."

It would be nice if the girls' foster parents could provide the $304 per girl that camp will cost. But such "extras" are beyond their means. The foster father runs a shoe repair business. His wife works as a fabric cutter. They are able to provide the girls with essentials, but nothing more.

However, families in the same spot -- or a worse one -- have been able to count on the rest of us for nearly four decades. It's time to ask for that help again.

The value of Send a Kid to Camp lies not just in a 12-year-old girl overcoming her fear of Old Man Clutch. The program shows kids who've had some hard knocks that strangers in their community really care about them.

One contributor wrote this week that it "feels good to think that my money makes a difference for these kids."

Another said that he "doesn't think it's enough just to go to work and come home. You have to care about others. This gives me a chance to do that."

Still another said that she "wouldn't give to a lot of charities. But I remember what camp meant to me, and how much I learned there. This is money well-spent."

I hope you'll see it the same way. In less than a month, the first buses rev up and pull away from the parking lot. That doesn't give us much time to raise what I hope will be a record-breaking total.

We're shooting at last year's bottom line of $180,138. But so far, our aim leaves a lot to be desired. After two weeks of campaigning, we've raised only $17,500. Our work, as they say, is cut out for us.

But if we do that work -- if we collect enough money -- we can provide kids in our midst with experiences they would probably never have anywhere else.

"What will I do at camp?" asks Vakisla. "I'll make buttons -- Michael Jackson and stuff. I'll do creative painting. I'll make oven holders like I did last year, and cartoon cutouts. And I can play hide and seek outside the cabin. And we can have pajama parties inside the cabin."

Marsha has a more modest goal: to learn how to hold a worm.

She tried last summer, but she couldn't summon the courage. "Everybody told me, 'Hold it, just hold it.' But I couldn't do it." This summer, she vows to do better.

Won't you do better, too? These girls, and hundreds like them, depend on you for what could be one of the most wholesome experiences they'll ever have. As so many people have said over the years, this is one check you'll feel good about writing.

Your contribution is tax-deductible, of course. It'll also be greatly appreciated -- by two 12-year-old girls, by a certain columnist, and by a certain Confederate soldier who still has bones to pick.


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.