On June 29, 1904 -- a damp Wednesday -- 50 children gathered in front of 809 First St. NW. Their mothers were there, too, and I can only guess that both groups -- mothers and children -- were curious about what exactly they'd gotten themselves into.
Some of the children chattered, I bet, as children will do. Others probably had the stricken look of the naturally fearful. I imagine there were runny noses and croupy coughs.
I haven't been able to find a photograph of this historic morning, so I don't know exactly how everyone was dressed. I think it's safe to say that their clothes were well worn, the britches patched, the stockings darned, the skirts frayed about the hem.
When all who were coming were there, the woman in charge announced that it was time to go. Their destination: something called a summer camp.
The Washington Post did not deem this event newsworthy enough to include in the next day's paper. But it must have stuck in the head of at least one editor here, for on July 2 he chose to print a nine-line notice on Page 7, above an item announcing that Mrs. Grover Cleveland was visiting her summer home in New Hampshire. Underneath a rather inscrutable headline -- "Took Possession of Camp Goodwill" -- were two sentences:
" 'Camp Goodwill,' in Rock Creek Park, was initiated Wednesday, when fifty children and mothers gathered at the Noel house and drove out to the camp. A rain interfered with the pleasure of the day, but swimming was just as enjoyable, and there will be lots of sunshine, it is predicted, before the week of their stay is over."
But swimming was just as enjoyable, and there will be lots of sunshine, it is predicted. I imagine that long-forgotten editor must have experienced some pleasure typing those words. For he knew that there was something good and right about poor kids leaving behind the woes and deprivations of their lives to experience a week of swimming and sunshine.
Which brings us, 100 years later, to The Washington Post's annual Send a Kid to Camp campaign. This year marks the centennial of the camping program that began with 50 children and their mothers assembling outside Noel House, one of the famed settlement houses that were a hallmark of the Progressive Age. This summer, if we're lucky, more than 800 needy kids will go to Camp Moss Hollow, a sylvan retreat on a mountainside near Markham, Va.
I say "if we're lucky" because we're in this together, you and I. The only money that goes toward subsidizing camp trips for at-risk children comes from readers of The Washington Post, who donate through this column. The campaign kicks off today and ends July 23. Between now and then, we hope to raise -- we have to raise -- $750,000.
A few things you should know: The boys and girls who go to Camp Moss Hollow come from some of the Washington area's most dire neighborhoods, the ones that many of us see on the evening news and whisper, "I'm glad I don't live there." They are children who have been fated to live the painful maxim: "Life's not fair." But although they might come from broken homes, they aren't broken kids. They're kids who need a break.
To send one child to camp this summer costs $590. No kid who wants to go is refused. I won't refuse any donation, no matter how small. Contribute $5,900 to send 10 kids, or $590 to send one kid, or $59 to send one-tenth of a kid, or $5.90 to send one-hundredth of a kid. All gifts are cheerfully accepted, and all are tax deductible.
(I confess that when I was merely a reader of this column, and not the writer, I fretted about the name: Send a Kid to Camp. Oh sure, I thought, send a kid to camp, but how was he going to get back? I am glad to report that not a single kid will be forced to hitchhike home.)
If you're a regular reader, you know I have a historical bent. I like imagining what life was like in Washington at different times in the past. This 100th anniversary year allows me to do what I love most: dive into the archives.
But it should be remembered that history is made in little ways. A watershed event in a poor kid's life -- the smell of the woods, the glorious silence, the opportunity to just play -- is no less historic for being small and humble and private.
I don't know exactly how the lives of those 50 original children who left behind the tenements of the city for a week in the wilds of Rock Creek Park were changed. I don't know which ones were able to escape the orbit of their grim surroundings and which ones weren't. But I do know this: For one week in the summer of 1904, their lives were made better. They were fed. They saw that people -- strangers -- cared about them. They learned that life didn't have to be so bad. They were given that most gracious of gifts: hope.
Let's you and I do the same thing for today's kids.
How to Help
Make a check or money order payable to "Send a Kid to Camp" and mail it to: Attention, Lockbox, Department 0500, Washington, D.C. 20073-0500.
To contribute by Visa or MasterCard, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 on a touch-tone phone. Then punch in KIDS, or 5437, and follow the instructions.
To contribute online, go to www.washingtonpost.com/camp. Click on the icon that says, "Make Your Tax-Deductible Donation."
And for the next eight Wednesdays, McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurants and M&S Grills will donate proceeds from specific menu items to Send a Kid to Camp. I'll have details tomorrow.
I'm at firstname.lastname@example.org and 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.