Spying a chocolate doughnut in the lunch box, 7-year-old Michelle Riviera took a big bite of her ham-and-cheese sandwich and hastily reached for her milk.
Between sips, she giggled with a group of friends clustered around the table at Van Bokkelen Elementary School. But their laughter was drowned out by the din as 100 children talked excitedly and scampered about the lunchroom.
"I like everything here," announced Jaymika Mitchell, one of the children from Meade Village and Pioneer City enjoying six weeks of free food and fun.
With help from the Dream Team, a new coalition ofcounty officials and children's advocates, the Anne Arundel Housing Authority received a federal grant to offer a lunch program this summer.
County Executive Robert R. Neall provided the push to get the program going, said Adrian Wiseman, chairman of the Human Relations Commission. When Neall's social services staff warned that all the paperwork arrived late, the executive simply said: "Let's make it happen."
The effort has paid off for nearly 200 children living in the county's public housing communities. For the first time in years, they're experiencing all the attention and fun of a summer camp.
Everyday, they race over to a neighborhood center for breakfast and games. After eating eggs, fruit and juice, they challenge each other at Monopoly, whirl around in hula hoops and play kickball. Then, they sit down to lunch.
"We need some more chocolate milk," shouted six girls sitting at a table at Van Bokkelen, the site for 110 children fromMeade Village and Pioneer City. Another 70 children are participating in the program at Freetown.
The 10- and 11-year-olds said they liked getting away from the drug dealers who frequent their neighborhoods. Five days a week, from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., they're busy and safe. But when they walk home, they said, they often see drug dealerssporting flashy clothes and gold chains.
"I walk on by like I don't see them," said Terrika Degraffinreaidt, 12, who lives in Pioneer City. "It's scary."
Tonya Hawthorne, a 12-year-old from Meade, said she wishes the police would "get those drug dealers out of here."
Her mother, Deborah Hawthorne, is one of several parent volunteers helping to serve the children and coordinate activities.
"They do like it," she said. "I think it's good. At least they're not out on the street."
In the past two weeks, the parents and housing workershave learned how to keep the children coming back for more. When half the children turned up their noses at bagels, the menu was changed,said Glenndale Johnson, who is coordinating the program.
"Depending on the day, all the food's gone," she said.
She pauses for a moment and then adds, "One thing, of course, is they all prefer chocolate milk over white milk. So we're changing that."
If the program meets federal guidelines, the housing authority will receive reimbursements for the $1.08 spent on every meal. Johnson said she hopes to make it an annual program.
"I think it's nice because it gives them something to do as well as getting a meal," said Dejeanette Manning, a Meade Village mother of three and volunteer.
Manning, who was seriously hurt in a car accident on Mother's Day, made a vow while she was recuperating to spend as much time as possible with her children.She wants to continue the program next summer and attended a training session sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to learn management strategies.
Next summer, parents like Manning may take over running the program, Johnson said. HUD is offering money and other incentives to encourage public housing tenants to get more involved.