These days, she worries about budgets and board members and why Johnny can't read. But in the late 1950s, Floretta Dukes McKenzie supervised hiking, horseshoes and several hundred campers -- and she says those experiences helped make her the leader she is today.
McKenzie is superintendent of the D.C. public schools, a job that puts her in direct control of the destinies of the city's kids. But for four summers, McKenzie was a counselor and assistant camp director for Family and Child Services, the city's largest private social welfare agency. The same agency will send more than 1,200 underprivileged kids from all over the area to camps this summer -- provided that you help.
Why should you? "Because," said McKenzie, in an interview in her 12th Street office last week, "these aren't the kids who vandalize parks or trees. They really protect the open places in our city. They're the kids who end up doing better in schools and in life. They deserve to go.
"These kids, the ones who go to camp, are the ones who will grow up and make contributions themselves to camp, and to the life of the city. It's a great experience. Being a counselor was certainly one of the greatest I ever had."
McKenzie was 20 years old in 1956, and like so many young Washingtonians that age today, she was looking for a summer job. Prospects looked bleak until a clerk at an employment office asked if McKenzie had thought about working as a camp counselor.
"I said, 'Heyyyyyy,' " McKenzie recalls. "I knew I was going to teach, but I hadn't had intimate involvement with children at that point. So this sounded perfect.
"I went down to Camp Goodwill in Prince William County, Va. and I fell in love.
"I think I developed most of my leadership skills there. Seriously. The kids develop leadership skills, too, but more important, they develop self-confidence. They learn to work together. They learn an appreciation of nature. Sometimes, in the city, it's hard to ever see the stars."
Camp was particularly beneficial, according to McKenzie, for "kids who would not be the stars at their schools. But at camp, a lot of the pressure wasn't there. You could see kids develop from year to year in ways you never thought they would develop."
Her years at camp stuck so firmly in McKenzie's mind that she led a successful fight for a summer computer camp operated by the D.C. public schools. Beginning next month, 600 students will spend a week in the country learning the ins and outs of printouts and programs. "There's no question" that the idea took shape "during those evenings I spent discussing the verities of life at Camp Goodwill," McKenzie says.
Not every camping experience was glorious and golden for McKenzie. She still shivers when she recalls the night a snake found its way into her bunk before she did.
But she became the best horseshoe pitcher at Goodwill her first summer there, McKenzie says, and there are still some weekend evenings in her neighborhood when "one of the men will set up the stakes and we'll see if we still remember how to do it." By all accounts, she does.
Floretta McKenzie never went to camp as a child. But her experience as a counselor has shown her -- and should show all of us -- why helping to send an underprivileged kid to camp makes this a better community.
"I think if people in our city care about kids and they want young people to have well-rounded lives and an appreciation for the environment in a way they can't get from books or staying in the city, they can't invest in a better thing than the quality of life of a young person," McKenzie said.
"And that means camp. That's where they grow."
If you'd like to help disadvantaged children in our community grow, your support is welcome. Please contribute today to our Send a Kid to Camp campaign.
Make a check or money order payable to Send a Kid to Camp and mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington,