What sort of kids are helped by your gift to Send a Kid to Camp? Kids such as Jodeci and Stephon, brothers who've been through some tough times. My assistant, Julia Feldmeier, has their story.
A week ago Saturday, Jodeci and Stephon Sturdivant visited their mother's grave. It was Shirlene Sturdivant's birthday; she would have been 38. She died in 2003 from AIDS complications, after struggling with the disease for more than 15 years.
Jodeci, 13, and Stephon, 11, are comforted by the thought that their mom is in heaven.
"They know that she's in a better place now, and they know that she's not hurting anymore," said Arlene Sturdivant, the boys' aunt. "They like that idea."
In many ways, the boys are in a better place now, too. Because Shirlene was so ill and using a wheelchair, the parent-child role was reversed. A single mom -- the boys don't know their father -- she was largely dependent on Jodeci and Stephon to care for her, and for themselves.
"She wasn't able to cook," Jodeci said. "She just told us how to, and we cooked the meals."
They took on other responsibilities, too, such as helping Shirlene get around and keeping her clean.
"They were probably involved in a lot of things they shouldn't have been," Arlene said. "The kids were doing too much for her."
In January 2003, their school took note of the boys' erratic attendance and called Arlene. If somebody didn't step in, the school would call the District's child welfare agency.
"Of course, I couldn't let that happen," Arlene said. The boys moved in with her. They had stayed with her before on weekends. Jodeci, who is older and bore more of the responsibility, loved the break.
"He would often say, 'Just take me,' " Arlene said. "I didn't want to hurt their mother by taking them away from her, but then she got to that point where somebody had to do something."
When Shirlene passed away a few months later, Arlene assumed full custody of Jodeci and Stephon. Life changed dramatically.
"They're, like, totally different than what they used to be. The stability really, really helped," Arlene said. Before, "they had no stability at all -- they did what they wanted to do."
Stephon, who was 9 when his mom died, was "really wild and hard to deal with," she said. "The teachers at school felt really sorry for the situation and would let him do whatever he wanted. His grades were horrible. He didn't have to do his homework."
This year, under his aunt's care, Stephon was named most improved child at school and made honor roll all year long.
Changes have been big for Arlene, too. She is 41, and she has one child of her own, a daughter who is 20. "To go back to dealing with young children is difficult. To have to get back home and make sure there's dinner, that their chores are done, that they've had a bath -- I get tired sometimes," she said. "But I love them to death."
She receives a little assistance to cover the cost of caring for Jodeci and Stephon. They get a check from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which their mother was on when she was alive, for $298 a month for both of them.
But Arlene, who works for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said she's in a better financial situation now than when her daughter was the boys' age, so if Jodeci and Stephon have good grades and good manners, she rewards them with gifts.
Camp Moss Hollow is one thing she treats them to every year. She pays roughly $60 to send both of them for a week, the rest of the camp's fee being paid by Post readers. The boys love Moss Hollow, mostly for the chance to be outdoors and play with children their age.
Much of their summer is spent playing inside Arlene's house in Columbia Heights. She doesn't let them play outside without her supervision because she worries about them falling in with a rough crowd.
Camp, in the meantime, gives Jodeci and Stephon a chance to run free. They love hiking, swimming and catching bugs. Jodeci got a "bug barn" for Christmas and has been collecting different species.
"I put them in there, and they eat each other -- for dinner and lunch and all that stuff," he said.
Shirlene never sent her sons to camp, but "she would be proud of us" for going, Jodeci said. "She'd be happy, because when we were living with her, we weren't able to have a child's life."
Time to Help and How to Do It
Children should have a child's life. That's the simple premise behind Send a Kid to Camp. That's why thousands of Post readers donate amounts large and small. These gifts represent the only funding for Camp Moss Hollow.
So far we've raised $324,731.59. Our campaign ends tomorrow. Can we reach our $650,000 goal by then? It's a daunting prospect, but for the sake of kids such as Stephon and Jodeci, I hope we can. And perhaps with your help we will.
Here's how to make a tax-deductible gift:
Make a check or money order payable to "Send a Kid to Camp" and mail it to Family and Child Services, P.O. Box 96237, Washington, D.C. 20090-6237.
To contribute online, go to www.washingtonpost.com/johnkelly. Click on the icon that says, "Make a Donation."
To donate by MasterCard or Visa by phone, call 202-334-5100 and follow the instructions on our taped message.