Children swim toward summer as if it were the shore -- a solid place, a known place, a place where they can thrive. As air conditioners begin to hum, there's little doubt that the summer "shore" is upon us.

That should mean big fun for every child of every age. But for the neediest children in our community, summer is often just a hotter version of a difficult life. If you have no place to go and no money with which to do anything, if your family situation is a scramble and you live in a rugged neighborhood, summer is no shore. It's a struggle.

Fortunately, children can literally get away from it all at summer camp. Drugs and crime don't exist there. Filth and squalor aren't everyday companions. Campers can swim, hike, chatter, appreciate nature and, best of all, grow. Camp is an experience that always nourishes, in the right ways.

With that, we raise the curtain on an annual effort and an annual pleasure: our Send a Kid to Camp fund-raising campaign.

This is the 18th consecutive year that Former Camper Levey has pounded the drum and tried to fill the kitty for the benefit of underprivileged children in our community.

The drum part has been easy, and you loyal readers have made the kitty part pretty easy, too. Last summer, we roared to a record year: $536,449.64. That was 15 percent more than we raised the year before and approximately three times what we collected the first year I tried my hand at this.

It boosts our 17-year total to more than $4.5 million. Send a Kid to Camp long ago became the most successful campaign of its kind in the United States. What a wonderful sign that this community cares.

But now it's time to do it again. And to do even better if we can.

Beginning in about two weeks, we plan to send the first of 882 campers to Camp Moss Hollow, in Markham, Va., in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. They depend on your generosity to cover the bill.

As in past years, the campers you support come from the most troubled sectors of local life. They are foster children, adopted children, children who have been in trouble with the law, sometimes all three.

Many of these children have never been outside their neighborhoods, much less been to the country. But I'm betting that they discover what thousands have before them -- that the spirit of camp lasts all year. As a result, supporting campers is a way to support our entire community.

Emboldened by last year's success, I'm going to set the bar higher than ever this year.

Let's see if we can raise $550,000 in 1999.

If we do, we will not only send all the children to camp who are signed up to go but we may be able to send others. Dollars couldn't be better spent.

Camp Moss Hollow is run by Family and Child Services, Washington's oldest private social services agency. Neither the camp nor the agency has any direct connection to any government.

Campers are ages 7 to 14. Half are boys; half girls. They live in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. None could go to camp if the community didn't pay the tab.

If you'd like to take the name of our campaign literally, please contribute $300. That's what it will cost to send one child to camp for the prescribed period of 11 days. However, gifts of any size are welcome, and all gifts will be acknowledged. Every gift is deductible on state and local income tax returns as long as you itemize deductions.

We gladly accept donations charged to credit cards (details below). If you'd like to contribute foreign coins or bills, please mail or bring them to me at the address listed below.

For the third consecutive year, it's a pleasure to welcome the support of McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurants.

For the next eight Wednesdays, M&S will designate one menu item as a Send a Kid to Camp "special." All proceeds from the sale of that item on that Wednesday will go to our camp fund.

Three M&S locations are participating this year. The addresses are 17th and K streets NW, Reston Town Center, and 13th and F streets NW.

Although this is the formal opening day of our 1999 campaign, money for Send a Kid to Camp trickles our way throughout the year. Therefore, as you can see below, we are already off and running. With your help, we can cover the rest of the ground. Thanks very much in advance for your support.

Our goal by July 30: $550,000.

In hand as of June 6: $21,984.25.

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, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

BY VISA OR MASTERCARD:

Call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 on a touch-tone phone. Then punch in K-I-D-S, or 5437, and follow instructions.