Instead of lounging comfortably at one of the pools this summer, 12-year-old Erika Scott is tramping through tall grass and mud, dodging poison ivy and building bluebird boxes.
And there's not much room for boredom when you're helping to pack three tons of frozen corn at the Maryland Food Bank and managing a vegetable garden, said Owen Read, 12.
Owen and Erika, with about 40 other Howard County children, are paying $210 each to work hard this summer in the TEEN Leadership Corps sponsored by the Columbia Association. The camp gives middle-school-age children a chance to learn leadership skills and work on a variety of projects that benefit the environment and community.
"We've got to stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about others," said Erika, a student at Harpers Choice Middle School. "One of my friends is bumming around all summer, while I feel that I'm making a significant impact on the rest of my life.
"My friends said that today's problems aren't for children to fix," she added. "But I told them kids can do it, too; we can accomplish a lot in this program."
That's exactly what the program is trying to accomplish, said camp designer and former director Judy Seniura. Given the opportunity to volunteer and learn, children will understand that they can help their society, Mrs. Seniura said.
"I had a kid ask me 'Why would I pay to volunteer? I can do work at home,' " Mrs. Seniura said. "But it's so much more than that. I think they get a real good sense of self-worth and understand that even though they're not adults, they can still contribute.
"Along with that self-confidence, they learn that it's important to give something back to the community they live in. The whole philosophy of the camp is to let the participant do the most they can on their own."
A lot of children want to help their community, but many institutions can't accept such young volunteers. TEEN Leadership gives them opportunities, Mrs. Seniura said.
Children in Project Environment learn how to test for pollutants in streams, study waterfowl and paint curb-side messages about saving Chesapeake Bay.
Project Needy participants, meanwhile, work at the Maryland Food Bank, serve lunch to needy families and grow vegetable gardens at Sarah's House in Fort Meade.
Children in Project Special help people with special needs, develop a pamphlet which lists volunteer needs for teens and plan events for youngsters at the Lynwood Children's Center in Ellicott City. Project Community lets participants be creative and develop ideas to enhance the community.
Each program also involves teaching children leadership skills like self-esteem, goal setting, problem solving, personal responsibility and improved communication.
"One reason I picked this camp was because I've always wanted to work in a soup kitchen and help other people," said 12-year-old Megan Tyler, a Project Needy participant. "This was a real good opportunity to do that, because I've never seen a camp that involved children helping others so much."
Owen, also in Project Needy, agreed.
"Helping directly, that's what I like about it," he said. "The kids in Columbia are pretty much lucky, and I wanted to help people not as fortunate as we are.
"You really feel needed."
Only in its second year, the camp offers four two-week sessions this summer. Since the program is small, only two projects can be worked on during each session because there are only two counselors for the entire program.
"I think they do a great job for kids that only get two weeks to do what they have to do," Mrs. Seniura said. "It has a long-range effect in that these participants learn that the contributions they make, make a difference. I wish more adults were like them."
As for Erika, these are two weeks she'll never forget.
"I can tell my children someday that I helped the environment when I was younger," she said. "It makes me really proud."