The parking lot fills early when it's time to muster for the trip to Camp Moss Hollow. My assistant, Alex MacCallum, was there last week as the expectant kids gathered:
Early Tuesday morning, roller suitcases, sleeping bags and kids covered the lawn of the Model Cities Senior Wellness Center at 1901 Evarts St. NE. As the campers arrived, they dropped their bags in a central pile. Then they lined up at the table of camp registrar TiShawn Evans.
TiShawn made sure the kids met the main criteria for campers -- a completed health form and the $15 registration fee. If they had both, she turned over a coveted boarding pass for the child to use when the bus arrived.
"It's kind of like a boarding pass at the airport," said Lois Johnson, a mother of two of this year's campers. "You need one to get on the bus."
In the past, the popular Moss Hollow has had problems with unregistered kids trying to sneak onto the buses and make a break for camp.
One year, a mother snuck her 4-year-old onto one of the buses, TiShawn said. The counselors called her when they arrived at camp and discovered the extra youngster.
"She said she was on an airplane and couldn't do anything about it," TiShawn said. So they took care of her 4-year-old for the week but instated more formal registration policies for boarding the buses.
A mix of old and new campers mingled on the lawn. The first session of camp is called the One Plus One session: Old campers come back to camp and are encouraged to bring a friend. It's also a mini-session -- only four days long -- but that didn't dampen the kids' enthusiasm.
Eleven-year-old Leadell Bright had rolled up his faded blue and orange Fisher Price sleeping bag onto his small, black suitcase. He had never been to camp and said he was excited to go. "I'm going to go climbing, play basketball and go hiking," he said with a shy smile.
Lois Johnson's daughters, LaTisha and Roslynn, are experienced campers, having attended Moss Hollow for five years.
"I haven't seen all these kids before," said Roslynn, 13. "But it's going to be fun. You meet people."
As the kids finished registering, the staff found out that the buses were stuck in traffic and running late. At the weeklong training session for counselors and leadership trainees, they were taught a number of "time fillers" -- ways to entertain the kids for 10-, 20- and 30-minute segments.
The counselors gathered the campers into a group and started leading camp songs. A grinning counselor wearing dangling red, white and blue earrings shouted, "Welcome to the Hollow, it's time to check in," then "Boxwood, make some noise if you're in the house."
All the youngest girls, future residents of the Boxwood cabin, shouted and yelled, clapping to the rhythm of the song. The song continued, becoming a contest -- whichever group responded loudest was most enthusiastic about being present.
After the singing, the counselors huddled the campers into two circles, one for boys, the other for girls. The girls played eye-tag, a form of tag that substitutes eye contact for tagging.
"I know why none of you are getting out," said the counselor leading the game. "You're all looking down when you open your eyes!"
The buses finally arrived. The army of kids immediately rolled or lugged the bags aboard -- girls in one bus, boys in the other. The counselors helped the younger, smaller kids lift their bags and load them into the back. When the campers had dropped off their bags, they lined up to board.
Winnie the Poohs, leopard dots and bright colors patterned the pillows that many of the kids clutched to their chests as they waited. As they handed their boarding passes to the counselors, they waved a last goodbye to their parents.
"It's really hectic now," said counselor Kristen James, 20. "Once we get to camp, it dies down. But the kids keep our energy up."
Although many had brought their pillows with them on the bus, the kids showed no signs of fatigue. Excited chatter floated out the bus windows as the doors were closed, and the buses got ready to pull away.
Send a Kid to Camp
The only funds that support summer camping at Moss Hollow are those donated by Washington Post readers. It's a big responsibility, but also a big honor.
If you've already contributed, you're part of a tradition that goes back to 1904, when the very first summer camp for needy kids was opened in Washington by Family and Child Services, the nonprofit group that operates Moss Hollow. If you haven't, I hope you will.
Our Send a Kid to Camp campaign needs to raise $750,000 by July 23 to support activities at Camp Moss Hollow. As of yesterday, Washington Post readers had donated $207,517.
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.
E-mail John Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071.