It's a sun-drenched Monday morning filled with promise as two school buses rumble along, past boarded windows and old jungle gyms, beyond narrow row houses and worn stone stoops, until curbs turn to clover and pavements to pasture.
Forty-four pairs of sneakers used to pounding concrete are about to test the grass--nearly 120 acres of it in Mount Airy, Md., where Hope Valley Camp, a project of the Council of Churches of Greater Washington, is host to children aged 7 to 13. Many of the campers are underprivileged kids who would not otherwise get away for summer vacation this year; others are from better-off families attracted by the program.
For some, the ride through the countryside is one of the best parts: "I like to watch the houses," says one girl in long braids. The "property" is beautiful, she says, pointing to one rural dwelling: "That's nice. It's small, but it's nice."
The trip is spent in happy chatter and anticipation as experienced campers tell newcomers of another bus, this one abandoned near the camp and housing the legendary "Old Man Clutch"--the stuff of many a delightfully scary story at campfire time: "They have what you call a one-arm and a one-leg Clutch and a no-head Clutch. "They have paint on the bus and arms hangin' out the window but they're not real."
And then the ride is over and the rest of the week's fun is at hand--swimming, hiking, trampoline-jumping, volleyball, horseshoes and hayrides, among other pleasures. Some have special plans, like Northwest Washington's Valerie Hodge, 13, who wants to learn how to swim.
A typical five-day stay, from Monday to Saturday morning, costs $125, but financial aid is available for those who need it, and most campers do, according to Steve Owens, camp director. Besides support from the 551-member Protestant council, which supplied nearly half the camp's operating budget of $52,000 this summer, funds come through donations by other churches, local businesses and agencies, individuals and Maryland state. Retreats held at the site the rest of the year and Christmas tree sales also provide money.
The main goal of the summer camp program is to get inner-city children in touch with nature and, secondarily, to promote cultural exchange in a multiracial setting.
"We usually get the kids who couldn't afford to go to camp," Owens says. "We have children who come here and have said, 'I've got my own bed!' and 'They really feed you here.' "
The campers, many from families with moderate to low incomes and some from group homes and shelters, are black, white, oriental and Hispanic, from the District, Alexandria and Baltimore and Montgomery, Prince George's, Frederick and Arlington counties.
Many live in inner-city areas or similar suburban pockets--"cement jungles" Owens calls them, where there's "very little" exposure to the sights the camp provides: rolling hills, tall trees and wildlife surrounding red clapboard cabins and the main lodge.
On a verdant field, just after a rousing game of Kick and Run, camper Edgar Woodridge of Palmer Park says he likes the change from his neighborhood, where "when you buy something you just throw it on the ground" when through.
For science lovers, like 11-year-old Nevada Smith of Northeast Washington, the setting is ideal. Smith selects one paperback on insects and another on rocks from the book table, then, upon reflection, exchanges one for a book on football before darting off across camp.
The books were supplied by DC-RIF (Reading Is Fundamental) and are among free gifts all campers receive. Upon arrival, each child is also given a "ditty bag" filled with more books, puzzles or games, a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, comb, postcards, pen, paper and a Bible.
Time is set aside for brief morning devotions, vespers and Bible discussion, where participation is encouraged but not mandatory. Staff say campers often read their Bibles during quiet times, spaced throughout the day's events. During those periods, the children also keep diaries, write home and contribute to the camp newspaper.
But most times, the pace is more frenetic, especially around the trampoline, a favorite facility:"Flip backwards! Flip forwards! "I ain't gonna break my neck!"
On a typical day, campers wake at seven a.m. and repair to the athletic field for calisthenics before breakfast. After cabin cleanup and inspection, it's time for small group activities--hikes, arts and crafts, swimming lessons and other sports before lunch. The pool is a mecca in the afternoon, while each evening brings a new event, such as square dancing or mini-Olympics with the designated teams--Pioneers, Sunrisers, Thunderbirds and Rainbow Riders--in hot competition.
Eight counselors supervise, and their company is welcome, says Gary Hodges, 12, of Southeast Washington, at camp his second year. Gary, an only child, says counselors are like big brothers and sisters and good for getting you "to meet new friends."
Counselor Deb Montgomery, 22, a camper herself 10 years ago, says, "The main thing I remember is that the counselors were 100 percent for the kids . . . ."
Another staff member and former camper is maintenance man Edward (Skip) Banks, 16, who wants to be a counselor next year. He and two of his brothers spent part of three summers at Hope Valley, because "it was bad around our way and we had to get away from all that."
He still lives in the same area in Southeast Washington, but "when you grow up you get to handle a neighborhood," he says. He looks toward this week's batch: "It changes them. They feel better about themselves."
While many benefit from the camp, according to the Rev. Lee H. Calhoun of the Council of Churches, the program is threatened by eight years of operating in the red. Donors, citing worsening economic conditions, are giving 35 to 40 percent less this year, and aid or job cutbacks reduce the ability of many families to pay, he says.
There was talk within the council of ending the program, now in its 24th year, but an indefinite probationary period was finally settled upon.
Although the number of campers has gone up in recent years--with 429 expected this year--the facility, which can handle 64 children a week, is not yet running at full capacity. There are openings during the last few weeks of camp, which ends Aug. 27. The first month was for 7- to 10-year-olds, the remainder for the 11 to 13 set. The council can be reached at 332-2080.
The call of the camp is undeniable.As cooks Lillie and Kathy Gresham, in their poem for the camp paper, say: Smokey clouds echo the wind; Brightness hovers beyond a mountain. Will a new, sweet breeze carry away the staleness? With this thought my hope arises again.