Inside the camp activity room there were cheerful posters on the wall, long windows that opened to sweeping, wintry views of the Chesapeake Bay and a couple dozen boisterous tweens.
There were pictures of childhood icons: Bugs Bunny, Popeye, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Scooby-Doo. On day two of their weekend adventure at Camp Mariposa, the kids had composed a camp song and were eager to get to the next activity: the indoor climbing wall.
But first, a discussion group. “How many people think that it’s your fault that your parent uses drugs?” asked Roberta Rinker, one of the counselors.
At least five hands shot up into the air.
“How many of you don’t think it’s your fault when your parents use drugs?” Rinker asked. Maybe 10 hands went up. The rest of the kids looked at the long stretches of snow outside or fiddled with their jacket zippers, and a couple of them curled up into little balls under their chairs.
Camp Mariposa is about a lot more than making lanyards. Those characters they were identifying? “What do they all have in common?” the counselors asked.
“Addiction!” the kids screamed.
Only, carrots, spinach, cookies, garbage and Scooby Snacks were a lot more fun to talk about than what their parents are addicted to: booze, marijuana, heroin, cocaine, meth.
In this space, which looks like it’s out of a Pottery Barn catalogue and feels like a vacation, a 9-year-old talked about the time the police came, a 10-year-old described the bottles all over the house and a 13-year-old talked about doing hard drugs with his parents.
It’s an extraordinary experiment in the Washington area that started last weekend, when a small group of kids from across the region who are directly affected by the addictions of the adults around them gathered to see that they are not alone.
Because that’s how it feels. Too often, kids can’t imagine that other kids go through this, or that other parents use drugs or that they aren’t total freaks for not having a perfect family. And none of them could imagine that they are among 8.3 million American children who live with a parent who needs treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
There is Al-Anon for adults. And Alateen for teenagers whose lives are affected by someone else’s addiction. But what does a 10-year-old have?
These kids were picked by social workers, counselors and therapists who heard about the program run by the Moyer Foundation, which was founded by Major League pitcher Jamie Moyer and his wife, Karen. The foundation runs a Camp Mariposa in six other states, mostly in cities Moyer played for or lived in.
When the foundation expanded to the District, it put the call out to the National Center for Children and Families for a couple dozen kids who could do well at the free camp. They will return to the camp for six weekends spaced throughout the year.
These are kids who live every day with the demons that haunt adults. Some are already in foster care, or D.C.’s shelter for homeless families or bouncing between Auntie’s and Grandma’s houses. A few also are dealing with drug use that has bled from the adults in the family to their older siblings. And they are watching the addiction bear down on them, with no place to go, no way to understand that what’s going on in their family isn’t normal, isn’t okay.
It was a little heartbreaking to hear the kids explain the way they understand the addiction destroying their parents.
“I think it’s our fault they do drugs because we don’t pay attention,” one bouncy 9-year-old explained.
“We stress them out, so they need them to calm down,” another child said.
“They do drugs because we stress them out, and they don’t want to yell at us,” another offered.
Excuses, excuses. And these kids have been eating them up.
Rinker, a social worker from Silver Spring, Md., asked the kids who disagreed to stand up.
“Let’s have a debate, y’all,” she said. “I want to hear from the other side.”
“It’s not my fault because they were on it before I was born,” said a 9-year-old, twirling her pink and green scarf around her hand.
“I know it’s not my fault because they choose to do it,” said the 12-year-old who’d already taken on a role of den mother, holding hands with some of the stressed-out younger girls.
Then a commanding little 11-year-old, a boy who shook everyone’s hand around the circle as they were getting their seats, stepped in.
“I’m the best son I could be. If they want to go and smoke and do stupid stuff, it’s not my fault,” he said, and a round of applause fluttered across the room.
“When you live in a family with addiction,” Rinker said, kids “sometimes try to be the perfect child.”
Or you might be the family clown, to take the attention off the addicted, dysfunctional parent, she said. Or you might be the scapegoat, the kid always getting in trouble to take the focus off the addicted parent. “Or you might be the Enabler. You might say, ‘Oh, she wasn’t drunk. She wasn’t high,’ ” Rinker said. The room grew a little quieter and there were nods all around.
These are the kids who suffer when we talk about cutting programs and slashing funding and holding adults accountable for all their bad choices. Sure. Hold them accountable. But as a nation, we can’t afford to forget about the kids, who asked for none of it and are trying to survive.
The camp song? It starts out like this: “I didn’t CAUSE it, I can’t CONTROL it, I can’t CURE it.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.