The day before Michael Shirley went to camp for the first time, his mother took him downtown to the Salvation Army thrift store. She bought him a cardboard suitcase and "the first pair of pajamas I ever owned."

The pajamas and the suitcase soon fell apart. Michael Shirley came together.

He was 11 that summer, a kid on a teeter-totter. He might have turned toward a life of solid accomplishment, as he has. Or he might have become a kid who lied, cheated, stole, did drugs and headed for prison. In Kenilworth Courts, then and now a notorious public housing project in Northeast Washington, there were many more of the second kind than of the first.

Besides, Michael Shirley didn't even want to go to camp. His baseball team had two games left in the season "and we were fighting for first place," Michael recalls. The last thing you did around Kenilworth Courts was to wimp out on a chance to win a championship in favor of a chance to catch lightning bugs.

But Michael's mother insisted. So he and his pajamas and his cardboard suitcase boarded the bus. Two hours later, he stepped out at Camp Pleasant, near Quantico, Va. "I got off that bus and I said, 'Like, wow,' " Michael recalls.

That was 30 years ago. Michael Shirley has been part of our annual Send a Kid to Camp program ever since -- as a camper, a cook's helper, a counselor and (for the last 18 years) one of the assistant directors.

He personifies what Send a Kid to Camp tries to accomplish. What it accomplished in his case was "to give me a purpose, a way to help. For me, camp is always like coming home."

Michael Shirley works full time as a graphic designer at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Northeast Washington. But he spends every summer weekend at one of the three camps in the Send a Kid to Camp program, and he will occasionally drive to one of the camps on a weeknight just for the evening.

He admits that his dedication to the camp program led directly to the breakup of his marriage. Still, "it's kind of hard to get away from it," he explains, "because there's always a kid who's just like you were."

Like all dedicated adults who work with children, Michael Shirley has discovered that his labors never really end. "Some nights," he says, "my phone will ring, and it'll be one of my kids, calling from the Addison Road Metro station. He just needs to talk. So I'll get in my car and come and pick him up and take him back to my house {in Mitchellville}."

His salary for all that work and all those hours? Nothing.

"{Camp director} Randy Dorsey said he can't pay me," said Michael. "I do get paid for the winter program, even though I give most of it back, buying supplies and stuff. But money isn't the point of all this anyway."

Making a difference is. Michael remembers one boy who did a 180-degree turn during his two weeks at camp, thanks to a little dose of the Shirley Method.

"The kid said he didn't like camp and wanted to go home. So I took him down to the gate at {Camp} Pleasant. We just sat there and waited till it got dark. Then I pointed to the road and I said, 'There's the road. Go ahead.' "

The camper balked, of course. So Michael asked if he wanted to stay for maybe one more day. The boy said he did.

The next day, Michael asked if the camper wanted to re-up for still another day. "By the end of camp, he didn't want to go home. He cried and cried when he got on that bus," Michael recalls.

The guiding force in Michael's life is still his mother, even though she has been dead since 1964. ("I took the money I earned at camp that summer and buried her with it," he says, with a wistful look.)

"My mother always said, 'It's so easy to get into trouble and so hard to get out.' I tell that to all my kids. I tell them, 'You can take this road or that road.' " He chuckles and adds:

"They all say there's nothing worse than Michael Shirley's lecture."

And nothing more satisfying to the lecturer. "They're going to have to bury me out there one day," he says, as he drops off his visitor in the parking lot of the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station.

"I could never give it up. Because I've seen what camp can do."

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.

In hand as of July 10: $157,160.74.

Our goal (as of Aug. 10): $275,000.