Maria Johnson and her son Vincent Johnson, 13, of Seat Pleasant, are seen in Washington on June 24. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

Maria Johnson grew up in a part of Southeast known as the Hill. There were eight kids in her family. They lived on 37th Place in a neighborhood that was impoverished and drug-infested.

“My parents instilled in us it wasn’t where we lived, it was how we lived,” Maria said. “They taught us to believe in ourselves.”

It’s a lesson that Maria is passing on to her son, Vincent. From the moment he was born 13 years ago, the single mother has devoted herself to his upbringing.

Before he was born, really. “I would read to him in the womb,” Maria told me. “And I played classical music on my tummy.”

Even his name was chosen with care. “I named him Vincent because it means ‘conqueror,’ ” Maria said. “Words take effect. You have to be careful when you name your child.”

It’s hard to argue with success. Next week, Vincent starts orientation for a Prince George’s County program that will allow him to basically combine high school and college. When he completes the curriculum four years from now, he’ll receive not just a high school diploma but an associates degree from Prince George’s Community College as well.

“Every child has the ability to excel,” said Maria, who lives with her son in Seat Pleasant. “I think the key is engaging them. I don’t ask him to do anything I wouldn’t do. Connecting is the key.”

Vincent’s father is not a presence in his life. As devoted as Maria is to her son’s education, she knows there are things she can’t teach him. And so for seven years he’s spent a week every summer at Camp Moss Hollow, a camp in Fauquier County run by Family Matters of Greater Washington.

“Moss Hollow is an outlet for me,” Vincent said. “Most of the year, I’m studying and learning. When I get to camp, I get to experience new things — new cultures, other campers.”

Maria appreciates the strong male role models Vincent meets at Moss Hollow, including counselors who have been there for years and watched him grow from a 7-year-old. Being in the woods inspires a sort of creativity and learning that’s different from the classroom. Said Maria: “Let’s face it, when it’s dark at Moss Hollow, it’s dark.”

Vincent spent last week at the camp, a session punctuated by summer thunderstorms. It was a special week, for on the closing night, counselor Harrison West made a special announcement: Vincent Johnson had been coming to Moss Hollow longer than any other camper in attendance that week.

“It caught me by surprise,” Vincent said.

There’s a fire ring near a pond in the clearing where the closing-night ceremonies are held. As the senior camper, Vincent had the honor of lighting the bonfire.

“All of the campers gather around in a circle, and we showcase our talents and performances we’ve been working on that whole week,” Vincent said.

Some children sang. Others danced. Vincent was part of a group that did both. “Most of the artists in camp got together and made one big poster,” he said. “It was colorful and creative.”

Vincent told me he’d like to work in the computer field someday. “I’m excellent with computers,” he said. “They just fascinate me.”

He plans to go to Moss Hollow’s Winter Camp this fall, the first step toward becoming a counselor.

Send a kid to camp

Moss Hollow is a place for the Vincents in our area: kids whose parents want the best for them. It is through the generous support of Washington Post readers that such opportunities are offered to so many children.

It costs Family Matters of Greater Washington about $700 per child who goes to camp. That covers all the costs involved: counselors, food, transportation, insurance, etc. No family pays anything close to that, but it’s a good ballpark figure to keep in mind as you plan your donation. I’m thankful for a gift of any amount.

To make your tax-deductible donation, simply go to and click where it says, “Give Now.” Or send a check, made payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Send a Kid to Camp, Family Matters of Greater Washington, P.O. Box 200045, Pittsburgh, PA 15251-0045.

In response to readers concerned about the Pittsburgh mailing address: It’s just the location of the lockbox used by Bethesda-based Eagle Bank, which handles the charity’s finances. The donations are used for kids in our area.

For previous columns, go to