With its turretted castles, spooky graveyards, enchanted forest and costumed knights spinning tales about King Arthur and the Holy Grail, it's easy for children who visit the Good Knight Angelic Kingdom in Beltsville to forget the reason they're there: to learn about crime prevention.
The kingdom's young visitors watch performances at an amphitheater. They stroll through a labyrinth that is home to 22 white doves and a Belgian-lace peacock. They walk into a castle filled with Star Wars characters. Brilliant Arthurian murals decorate several castle walls.
"It's kind of a low-budget Disneyland," joked Edward J. Jagen, or "Sir Edward," the founder of the 10-year-old complex, which he describes as a museum of modern mythology and child safety village. "The whole idea is to transport them to a different place within them," he said.
A safe place within them, that is.
Fear of crime can ruin the sense of well-being that allows children to be imaginative and creative, said Gwen Gregory, the kingdom's executive director. "When you are in fear, you are not dreaming," she said.
During the kingdom's "Adventure Quest for Families," children and parents are invited to learn about personal safety at a program each Saturday morning. The group is welcomed by volunteer "knights," who conduct a short interactive discussion about avoiding dangerous situations.
Then participants are shown a 25-minute safety video that demonstrates traps for children to avoid, such as being lured into a car or being bribed to do things they don't want to do. The children then stroll through one of the eight themed castles, which include the Castle of Hercules, Dr. Frankenstein's Anti-Drug Lab and one with a Star Wars theme. After successful completion of the program, Sir Edward dubs participants "good knights" in a ceremony.
Some parents are just as excited about earning the distinction. "The parents want to be knighted as much as the children do," attested Dhyana Zagri, a volunteer at the center who painted four of the murals that adorn the kingdom's walls.
"When I was knighted, I was almost in tears because I was so excited. I could feel that energy running through me."
Zagri said her four sons, ages 4 to 15, have fallen in love with the kingdom. But she says she has benefited just as much. It helped her to get over traumatic experiences from her childhood. "Coming here has allowed me to release and forgive. It allowed me to get rid of the anger," she said.
Jagen and his kingdom's child abduction and abuse prevention efforts have been hailed by television programs such as "48 Hours" and "America's Most Wanted" and were covered in newspaper articles nationwide.
The kingdom is a nonprofit organization that has four yearly public celebrations and conducts plays, classes and adventure camps starring Arthurian characters. Kingdom staff and volunteers also go to Prince George's County schools to teach kids about conflict resolution and environmental safety as well as peer pressure, drugs and other adolescent hazards. The kingdom recently announced a partnership with Safeway to sell a $29.95 family security kit, which includes a video, an audiotape and a workbook with a children's story by Jagen.
"A Good Knight Story," written by Jagen as a gift for his granddaughter, launched the organization. The story, featuring Sir Edward as the protagonist, is one of several children's books Jagen published combining child safety messages and an Arthurian theme. The kingdom is Jagen's literary vision come to life.
When it was founded in 1989, the kingdom was in a Landover industrial park. Jagen acquired the Beltsville location in 1993, but there was a lot of work to do before the kingdom became its present incarnation. Decades ago, the property had been used as a firing range. By the time Jagen took it over, the property had been abandoned and essentially turned into a dump. Jagen and his volunteers had to extract discarded microwaves, car parts and other debris from the site. (One volunteer inadvertently dug up a live grenade, which led to the site being swept by the folks from Fort Meade.)
Last fall, Jagen, a retired Washington police officer, received the 1999 President's Service Award Silver Medal for his efforts.
"I'm at war," Jagen said, "not against the bad people but against the good people who do nothing."
"Adventure Quest for Families" takes place Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. at 11001 Rhode Island Ave., Beltsville. Admission is $6. For reservations or information, call 301-595-8989 or visit the kingdom's Web site at goodknight.org.
CAPTION: Robert Vrbensky and Gwen Gregory conduct a program at the Good Knight Angelic Kingdom in Beltsville. On Saturday mornings, the kingdom offers activities for children that emphasize personal safety.