WITH STICKERS, you put them in an album and the next year you throw them out," says Mark Statz, 12, of the Springfield Stamp Club. "But stamps are forever, and they go up in value."
Statz is one of hundreds of kids in this area who spend some of their free time soaking envelopes, counting perforations, sticking stamps in albums and finding out about the people, animals, flowers and events pictured on these philatelic artworks.
''Each person on a stamp has a story behind him, and you can really learn a lot just by reading about the stamp," says Sabrina Phillips, a Postal Service employee who coordinates Ben Franklin stamp clubs for children in this area.
Fostered by the U.S. Postal Service, the Ben Franklin clubs are a low-key, social way for fourth-grade to sixth-grade kids to get involved with stamps. The clubs feed off newsletters offered by the Postal Service and stamps collected by members and supporters.
Teacher Mary Lou Kulsick leads a Ben Franklin Stamp Club at Graham Road Elementary in Falls Church. "This is a perfect place for a stamp club," she says of her school, which includes children from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Vietnam.
Each week, club members exchange stamps and interests. At each meeting, Kulsick features stamps from two or three countries, and club members search out the countries on the map and learn to spell exotic names.
As well as stamps from the children's native lands, raw material for their collections comes from disparate sources.
"The people in the school's clinic and the office save for us," says Kulsick, "and there's a woman in a nursing home in Massachusetts who sends us stamps, and a retired Foreign Service officer -- he gets wonderful stamps."
Joining a club is a good way to keep a youngster interested in the hobby. And the time to start is the beginning of the school year. Many public and private schools, Sunday schools, Scouts, synagogues and youth groups offer the Ben Franklin clubs.
How do you start a stamp collection? The biggest decision kids have to make is what kind of collection they'd like to have. Collecting by countries is only one of a nearly endless list of ways to put stamps in order. For instance, you can collect by series (like the Olympics series) or even by cartoon character. "Some countries have fabulous Disney character stamps," says Phillips.
Phillips says the Postal Service discourages kids from spending any money at the beginning, "until they find out if they're serious." After all, stamps come free of charge everyday to your home, she points out, and parents can help by picking up interesting canceled stamps at the office and encouraging friends and relatives to use commemorative stamps when they write.
What to put the stamps in? Some collectors, like Otto Thamasett of the Springfield Stamp Club, think it's best to start kids with a "stock album," whose pages contain slots for stamps.
"That way, they can organize it any way they want to -- butterflies on one page, people on another -- and move them around as their collection grows," he says.
But the preferred method of collecting at Graham Road seems to be international stamp albums. These have black-and-white pictures of stamps issued in the last decade or so, which the stamp club kids struggle to match with available stamps, inserting the matches with "hinges," little protective covers.
Masoda Bhuiyan, 9, from Bangladesh, shows just how tricky this is. Staring at two seemingly identical black-and-white pictures of the Colombian stamp she holds, she finally decides to attach it with a hinge to "this one, because it has a tiny dot just there -- see?"
For an easier matching job, you can get a free fold-out album called a Stamp Treasury from most large post offices. These albums have pictures of most of this year's commemoratives, along with a brief description of each.
If you want to set up a club, Phillips is happy to help any group with fourth- set up a Ben Franklin Club.
"We even have one in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, which is quite successful," she says. "They have a box outside the embassy gate where people drop off and pick up stamps; that gets a lot of use, apparently."
Older kids, or those with no Ben Franklin clubs available, are welcome at a handful of adult stamp clubs in the area. Then there's a national club run for and by young collectors, the Junior Philatelists of America, which offers services ranging from a newsletter and stamp exchange to auctions and a penpal program to hook up members with international collectors.
"All the officers are under 21," says Ken Martin, president.
As well as being educational, philately has another benefit: It can be a bridge between generations.
"It's often the grandparents who get the kids started on their first collection," says Miles Manchester of the Ayr Hill Stamp Club in Vienna. His club -- like many other largely adult stamp clubs in the area -- takes in and encourages youngsters. The Springfield group, in fact, has a special meeting set aside just for youngsters to help them set up their collections.
"Studies have shown that if people start this hobby in their youth, though they may drop it for awhile, many of them come back to it as adults," says Thamasett.
Stamp collecting can become a lifetime learning experience, a hobby that comes to you every day with the morning mail.
GETTING STARTED ON STAMPS
The Postal Service sponsors Ben Franklin clubs for fourth-, fifth- clubs are organized in elementary schools. For the name of the one nearest you, or to start a club, call Sabrina Phillips at the Merrifield, Virginia, Post Office, 703/698-6520.
The U.S. Postal Service also offers some free aids to stamp collecting, including a pamphlet on how to collect, a Stamp Treasury Album for commemorative stamps and a list of coming U.S. issues. Any large post office should have these; or go to the Northern Virginia Philatelic Center at the Merrifield Post Office, 8409 Lee Highway. The phone number is 703/698-6373.
Here's a sampling of other stamp clubs in and around Washington where youngsters are welcome.
AYR HILL STAMP CLUB -- This is an adult club that welcomes young collectors. Meetings are held the first and third Thursday at the Patrick Henry Library, Vienna. For more information, call Miles Manchester, 938-2924.
DOLLY MADISON STAMP CLUB -- This adult club takes young members and meets every first and third Friday at the McLean Community Center. For more information, phone Darrell Ertzberger, 841-6000.
PRINCE WILLIAM STAMP CLUB -- Another adult club that takes junior members. It meets every first and third Wednesday at the Potomac Library. For more information, call Jo Bleakley, 703/221-8973.
ROCKVILLE/GAITHERSBURG STAMP CLUB -- An adult club that takes junior members. it meets at the Gaithersburg Community Center every second and fourth Wednesday. For more information, call Sandy Campbell, 770-2609.
SPRINGFIELD STAMP CLUB -- has a special junior meeting at Lynbrook Elementary School every first and third Wednesday at 7. For more information, call Otto Thamasett at 451-2086 after 7 or on weekends.
JUNIOR PHILATELISTS OF AMERICA -- An organization run for and by young stamp collectors, this group offers an auction, awards, stamp exchanges, access to its library, a penpal/translation service, a newsletter, help with stamp identification, study groups and a first-day cover service, which helps get special stamps canceled on the first day of issue. For more information, contact the group at P.O. Box 15239, San Antonio, Texas 78212-8529.