Camp Tapawingo in southern Prince William County, the only camp for mentally retarded adults and children in Northern Virginia and one of only a few in the metropolitan area, is rebounding from serious financial problems last year that threatened its operation, officials said.

The 126-acre spread along the upper Occoquan River opened its 27th summer session in June to accept about 140 campers this summer, about 15 more than last year, with better trained staff, refurbished facilities and increased activities, camp officials said. Its annual operating budget has grown to $170,000 from about $130,000.

"It makes me feel good inside," said Bradley Lamphier, of Lorton, who has attended the camp since 1985 and now works in the kitchen. Even the food is better, Lamphier said.

Parents and guardians of campers -- most of whom come from Northern Virginia, Maryland and the District -- said they are pleased that the camp continues and that the improvements have been made.

"I think it's a godsend," said Fairfax County resident Sandra Provisor, whose son Oren, 15, has attended Tapawingo for eight years.

Indulging the campers in a constant stream of activities and giving the parents a chance to rest, Provisor explained, is "rejuvenating to the parents as well as the kids."

Overseeing this summer's session and helping plan for any major changes in Tapawingo's future is the new executive camp director, Allen D. Abey. As a former outdoor recreation specialist for U.S. military bases, Abey said he is accustomed to building programs from scratch.

One of Tapawingo's immediate objectives, Abey explained, is to design a program at the camp that does not highlight the handicaps of those attending.

"We want to make it more a resort than a camp, which gives the connotation that it's geared just for kiddies," Abey said. Now campers are called "guests" and the camp itself is referred to as Tapawingo's Outdoors Adventures.

On a recent steamy Wednesday afternoon, guests were cooling off in the pool. Some were taking a break from the day's activities, lounging on bunks in the freshly painted cabins. Others had retreated into the shaded woods for a long hike.

Ironically, the growth and improvements stem from serious debt that threatened to pull the aging camp under in recent years. In January, Camp Tapawingo Inc., a subsidiary of the Civitan Club of Alexandria, turned over operating responsibilities for the private, nonprofit camp to the Association of Retarded Citizens of Northern Virginia, which ran the camp in the early 1960s. In exchange for taking over a $50,000 mortgage on the camp, ARC will soon receive the deed to the property.

"It's time for strong, professional leadership of the camp and a fulltime staff to run the camp the way it should be operated," said Skipworth Calvert, president of the Alexandria Civitan Club.

Said ARC Executive Director Elaine Joyce: "We are working very hard to come across as a new, distinctive organization."

ARC, which first proposed using the Tapawingo facilities for the mentally retarded in 1963, was responsible for hiring staff and recruiting campers during the camp's first years. But once the camp was running smoothly, ARC -- primarily an advocacy organization -- handed control to an association of various Civitan Clubs in the metropolitan area.

But in recent years, the association had fallen behind in fund-raising activities, and a number of the people who had been active with the efforts left, according to association board member Richard Fullam.

Camper fees comprised only about half the amount needed to run the camp.

By last spring, the association had run up about $25,000 in debts to private vendors and about $25,000 in unpaid payroll taxes from 1987 and 1988. In March, the then-executive camp director and camp and facility director quit abruptly, leaving the association board to deal with the camp's daily business.

To salvage the shaken operation, Tapawingo Inc. took out a $50,000 mortgage on the camp to pay back its debts and began looking for another organization to take over. The summer session stayed afloat with cash and labor contributions from community clubs and individuals. Today, money is still one of Tapawingo's highest priorities. In addition to more aggressive fund-raising in the corporate sector, ARC poured $40,000 into the camp for materials to refurbish the facilities.

The counselors, who in previous years were usually high school students, today are college students studying recreation or special education.

Beginning this fall, camp officials plan to offer weekend sessions, which would focus more on field trips, such as hikes along the Appalachian trail.

Long-term goals include refurbishing the entire facility and further expanding activities throughout the year and to serve people with different disabilities.

But before implementing any major changes, the immediate "objective is just to have a successful summer and then go from there," Abey said.