Children get perspective in learning about others

Ellicott City woman runs Kids for Peace Camps

July 23, 2006|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

While attending the Kids for Peace Camp in Ellicott City recently, Gary Malveaux, 12, got a taste of what it would be like to be a dictator. And he liked it. A lot.

"I was a dictator for a day," said Gary, who is going into seventh grade at Patuxent Valley Middle School. "I sent basically everyone to jail. We had to make our own rules, and I said no talking, and everyone kept talking."

Gary said he learns more about the world at Kids for Peace than at school because it is so hands-on.

"We play games and stuff," he said. "In school, we have to just take notes."

The camp, run by Ellicott City resident Mary Hilton, teaches children about different cultures, with the goal of making them more aware and tolerant of the world around them.

The idea was born Sept. 11, 2001, she said. She was on a plane that day, coming back from Brazil, where she had been doing some work as part of her job as coordinator of the International Program at Towson University. She quickly realized that the shock and bewilderment felt by so many Americans reflected a poor awareness of the rest of the world.

She would change that, she decided, and she would do it by teaching children.

"If kids understand the different ways people think, they can have a better sensitivity for how to get along," she said.

Within a year, Hilton had started a camp in Towson called Kids for Peace Camp. The goal was to teach children ages 6 to 14 about different cultures, countries and customs.

"We put it together in nine months," she recalled.

Three years ago, she expanded the camp to Ellicott City at St. John's Episcopal Church, and last summer she opened a branch in Westminster. The program in all three locations is nine weeks long, with each week focusing on a different place.

Children can sign up for as many or as few weeks as they want. The camp runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.

Last week, students in Ellicott City were learning about Italy. Hilton makes the lessons fun by mixing silly activities such as teaching the kids how to slurp pasta with more serious lessons in art and government.

She mixed in some lessons about Leonardo da Vinci since The Da Vinci Code - book and movie - is dominating popular culture these days.

But always, the youngsters learn by doing. Kids made boats and staged a regatta while they were learning about Portugal, for example.

Each week, campers take a field trip that is connected to the country that has been studied. For Italy, they were scheduled to go to the Maryland Science Center and then eat food from Little Italy.

Sometimes kids choose to learn about a country because they have a connection to it.

Angela Scafidi, 6, who is going into second grade at St. John's Lane Elementary School, said she visits Italy every year to see her great-grandmother and likes learning more about the country.

Other children sign up because it "seemed really interesting," in the words of Lauren Kinzie, who is "almost 10" and going into fifth grade at St. John's.

"This is my second week," she said. "Last week, we were working on Mali and Madagascar. We went rock climbing for the field trip. We did a lot of African-style crafts."

Most weeks, about 40 children are in Towson, 30 in Ellicott City and 20 in Westminster, she said.

Many kids return year after year, and Hilton is careful to keep the camp fresh each year. Sometimes she repeats a country, but she always has new activities, she said.

She chooses counselors who have lived abroad or speak a foreign language. Isabel Medina, the site director in Ellicott City, lives in Brazil, but has been coming to the United States for three years to work for the camp. "I enjoy it a lot," she said. "That's why I'm always coming back."

She finished college recently and is teaching in an English-language school in Brazil, she said. But the camp is important to her. "It teaches little kids to respect other cultures," she said. "I think it makes a big difference for the future."

Anisah Imani, 15, a Garrison Forest School sophomore who is a junior counselor at the camp, is Muslim and African-American. She spent last summer in Egypt, learning to speak Arabic, and seems to have an endless thirst for knowledge about the world. "I'm not sure exactly what I want to do, but I do know that I want to be in the Peace Corps for a while," she said.

On Thursday, Hilton wore a T-shirt with the Kids for Peace Camp logo on the front. The Mahatma Gandhi quote on the back seemed to sum up her philosophy. It said: "If we are to reach real peace in the world and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to start with the children."

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