In 1960, Mike Shirley was a poor kid living in Kenilworth Courts in Northeast Washington who spent as much time as he could playing outside.
One day, his mother summoned him inside, where he found a tall white man standing in the living room.
“I thought I was in trouble,” Mike remembered recently.
It was just the opposite.
The man was George Greene, a World War II vet who worked for a charity called Family and Child Services. He was looking for boys like Mike Shirley.
Greene had heard through the grapevine that Mike had won the science fair at his school. (In fact, Mike had entered three projects and taken first, second and third. Teachers persuaded him to keep just the top prize and let other students be the runners-up.)
Greene thought kids like Mike would benefit from getting out of the city and into the great outdoors.
Mike was sold. He wanted to become a zoologist, and nothing sounded better to him than days spent rambling through the wilderness. For the next five years, he spent many hours at a working farm called Ivakota that the charity ran and at summer camps in Prince William Forest Park.
In 1966, when Mike was 17, George Greene gathered a few of the boys he’d collected and told them it was time to create a new summer camp at a place called Moss Hollow in Virginia’s Fauquier County.
“We went up there before they purchased it, just to look it over,” Mike remembered.
And what did you think, I asked?
“We didn’t like the place. It was extremely rugged. You couldn’t even get in.”
They had to get out of the van and start clearing a road onto the property. When they reached the old farmhouse at the center of the 400 acres, they found a shell, with bushes and trees growing inside. Said Mike: “We had to do a lot of work.”
Over the coming weeks and months, they did. They cleared out the farmhouse. They pulled down derelict sheds. They cut trails and cleared patches where tents could be set up. Greene put his ideas on paper and shared them with the youngsters: Here is where the cabins will go. Here is where the pool will be.
Mike remembered one day hacking through the underbrush to position a couple dozen huge white X’s, cut from paper and 6 feet across. He couldn’t figure out why, until Greene later showed him an aerial photograph, the camp’s boundaries denoted by the markers Mike and the others had so painstakingly placed. Something invisible — the property line — had, through hard work, become real.
“He would talk to us about potential,” Mike said. “What did we want with camp? He said he was going to do it. Once we finished it, it was our camp.”
That was 45 years ago. This year marks the 45th anniversary of Moss Hollow, the camp that readers of The Washington Post support each summer. The charity is now called Family Matters of Greater Washington, but its goal remains the same: to help kids who need help.
Our Send a Kid to Camp campaign runs through July 29. Our goal is to raise $500,000. With your help, we can. To donate online, go to www.washingtonpost.com/camp. Or mail a check payable to “Send a Kid to Camp” to Send a Kid to Camp, P.O. Box 96237, Washington, D.C. 20090-6237.
Once again, the fine people at Clyde’s restaurants and the Old Ebbitt Grill are supporting our efforts. Every Wednesday, they will offer a special menu item, the proceeds from which will benefit Send a Kid to Camp. This Wednesday, it’s the wild Alaska salmon.
George Greene passed away this year, but his legacy remains, in the cabins and trails of Moss Hollow and in people such as Mike Shirley, who, after graduating from Spingarn High, went to Columbus College of Art and Design, became a graphic designer and now teaches art at Crossland High in Temple Hills. And he still goes to Moss Hollow every summer, now as a director.
Your donation can help create tomorrow’s Mike Shirleys — and George Greenes, for that matter.
“He talked to us about becoming strong members of society,” Mike said. “He talked to us about doing right in our family. . . . The camp was to create an atmosphere where the poorest of the poor had a place to come. And it’s not just throwing out a ball and playing with them. It was a place to prepare us for the American dream, a place we can call our own, feel comfortable, feel safe and just keep on developing.”
It still is.