The experience of attending Camp Moss Hollow lasts long after campers have returned to the city. My assistant, Alex MacCallum, met a young man who carries a bit of the camp with him wherever he goes, along with the memories of the people who helped him at different stages of his life.
Foster child. Camp counselor. Computer technician. And teenager. All these descriptions fit Timothy Bennett, a 19-year-old sophomore at Norfolk State University. As one of those few souls blessed with an endless energy supply and an affinity for children, Timothy is gearing up for his second summer as a counselor at Camp Moss Hollow.
And in his spare time before camp starts, Timothy is finishing up a computer he built -- from scratch -- for his birth mother.
Timothy, a foster child who has been in the care of Family and Child Services since the age of 4, was a camper at Moss Hollow for seven summers. As a former camper, he has experienced the anxiety that grips a child when told that he will be spending a week in the care of strangers in a vast, new place called "the country."
"7-Eleven isn't around the corner. There's no traffic lights. There's no paved roads -- that's when you really know you're in the country," Timothy said.
Last summer, Timothy was in charge of reining in the rowdy 7- to 10-year-old campers. "I don't know if it's something in the water these days," Timothy said. "But they were athletic."
Family and Child Services took Timothy into its care because his mother was unable to raise him. Until he was 12, he lived with two foster families. Then he moved to a group home for boys that Family and Child Services ran on 20th Street NE. Sometimes, the many issues that accompany those terrible teenage years can cause the organization to shift a foster child from a family setting to a group home, according to Sherill Taylor, a social worker at the charity.
Twentieth Street housed five boys at a time, ages 12 to 18. The house had counselors on duty 24 hours a day, a strict curfew and lots of staff involvement in the kids' lives. Timothy lived there for six years, until a lack of funds forced Family and Child Services to shutter the house last year.
Many of the young foster children in the house had become attached to it, and its closing upset them. "That was a sad day for everybody," Timothy said. New homes were found for all the boys, but not all of them have stayed on the straight-and-narrow path that Timothy has followed.
Timothy attributes his success partly to the charity's staff, many of whom became surrogate parents for him as he grew up. "I had to go through a million people to get in trouble," he said. "Family and Child really does help the less fortunate experience life as a normal child. It gave me a lot of opportunities that I wouldn't have had if I'd grown up with my birth parents."
During 10th and 11th grade at Coolidge Senior High School, Timothy worked at a restaurant in Reagan National Airport. Every day, he spent one hour getting to work and more than two hours getting home. He would arrive at 20th Street at midnight, do an hour of homework and then wake up the next morning at 6 to get to school on time.
The long hours made Timothy fall behind in his schoolwork. But the principal of Coolidge at the time, Richard Jackson, is a member of the board of trustees at Family and Child Services, and he always kept an eye on Timothy. He and Timothy's teachers gave the overworked student a choice: Quit the job and focus on school or stay back a grade. Timothy quit and quickly caught up.
Hope Asterilla, now the director of Camp Moss Hollow, also worked at Coolidge while Timothy was there. During his senior year, she encouraged him to apply to be a counselor.
Now, Timothy proudly refers to his former counselors as "colleagues." And he looks forward to making sure this summer's campers enjoy camp as much as he did when he was little.
"It's a privilege to be a counselor and make an impact on someone's life," he said. "Some counselors might do it for the money. If that was the case, I would have quit a long time ago. The kids make me come back every year."
Two key chains, an orange one with the words "Coolidge Madness" inscribed on it and a black one with the words "Norfolk State University," hang from Timothy's pants pocket. He carries them every day to remind him of what he's been through and what he'd like to accomplish.
"You don't see too many black males without a criminal record actually in college, so this kind of makes a statement to people," Timothy said. "It shows I'm actually on the right track, that I want to make something of my life."
How to Help
If you would like to help future Timothy Bennetts, please make a contribution to our Send a Kid to Camp campaign. We need to raise $750,000 by July 23 to support summer activities at Camp Moss Hollow. As of yesterday, Washington Post readers had donated $182,681.05.
Here's how you can contribute: 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 online, go to www.washingtonpost.com/camp. Click on the icon that says, "Make Your Tax-Deductible Donation."
To contribute by phone with 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.