My Two Weeks in Day Camp

June 22, 1994|By ISAAC REHERT

Last summer I spent two weeks as a volunteer at the day camp of a city recreation center; and now as summer vacation approaches, I'd like to report what the experience was like.

For two weeks, I watched 40-odd city children at play, accompanied them to a nearby swimming pool, rode as a fellow-passenger on their out-of-town bus trips, and kept a benign supervisory eye on them, smiling at them a great deal -- which wasn't hard. Being around them was fun.

Of course, I developed my favorites: The always-smiling little eight-year-old whose whole face lit up at me when I glanced in her direction; and the already maternal 11-year-old, large and mature for her age, who kept looking after ''the children,'' seeing that they didn't lose their lunches or misplace their swimming suits.

I also had my pet peeves: The tough 10-year-old with the hair over his eyes who kept picking fights he knew he couldn't lose. And the big chubby boy always whinning for attention, who kept making a nuisance of himself until his colleagues drove him away.

After nearly a year, I know it's easy to forget the irritations and remember just the pleasant stuff. But as a volunteer, I experienced virtually no discomforts.

Discomforts were the responsibility of the paid professional staff -- a man, Mister Bud, and a woman, Miz Marie (I've changed these names, so I can write more freely) and a couple of high-school-student interns on a valuable federal summer jobs program. Mister Bud and Miz Marie took roll each morning, distributed lunches at noon and made sure everybody who signed up for a bus trip had paid and was on the bus going and coming home.

They did their share of smiling, but mostly they were too busy administrating to be the good-natured playmate a volunteer like me could be. They also prevented and broke up fights (and threw the pugnacious kid with hair over his eyes out of the program when he became too obnoxious).

One of my sharper memories is of Allen and Nick, the shy twins, about 10 or 11 years old. No matter what amusements the other kids were up to -- playing frisbee or riding bikes -- they stayed together, studying baseball cards or reading comic books, always keeping quietly to themselves.

One morning, I happened to meet their mother, who explained that she and their father were in the throes of divorce and the boys were very disturbed. With much emotion, she expressed what a relief it was for her to have a place to leave them in supervised play, as she had to spend the whole day at her job.

There was nothing conspicuous about the camp: no sumptuous bunks or mess halls under snow-capped mountains. No tents, no riding horses, no tennis courts. If you walked or drove by, you'd just see children playing in front of a plain red-brick building, or riding bicycles, or walking in straggly lines to and from the neighborhood swimming pool seven or eight blocks away.

Nearly every week there was a trip. One of my two weeks, it was to a theme park on the outskirts of Washington. Another was to the Washington zoo. Most of them had an allowance from home that they could spend any way they pleased.

The allowance provided a lesson in money management, for most of them spent it on the first treat they saw and then had nothing left for a cold drink or second snack. They complained, but Mister Bud was adamant -- after they spent their allowance, they had to do without. There was always water to drink. And something to be learned.

Was I aware, with all the touchy-feely going on, that I was opening myself up to a possible charge of sexual abuse? You bet I was; don't you think I read the papers? I used my own car to transport groups to the swimming pool, then fretted about insurance. When the sidewalk is a 100-degree inferno and the car is sitting idly at the curb, wouldn't you rather drive?

There was no question that parents got their money's worth. They paid $125 for five weeks for the first child, less for the second. In exchange they got the peace of mind of knowing their kids were in good hands and had a safe place to play.

I came to recognize the value of this largely unheralded agency of city government. In spite of the ballyhoo about cutting taxes, this is one tax-supported activity I'm happy to help pay for.

Isaac Rehert is a retired Sun feature writer.

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