- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2003

Eleven-year-old Taru Thompson knows what it means to have a room with a view. A few weeks ago, he traded a busy street and a schoolyard — the view from his snug bedroom in Northeast, just south of Deanwood — for 219 acres of wooded trails and waterfront, the view from his cabin at the YMCA’s Camp Letts in Edgewater, Md.

“I love it there,” Taru says. “I start thinking about Camp Letts already around Christmas.”

“It’s unbelievably beautiful out there,” says his mother, Arnetta Lee. “I’m so impressed with it.”

Camp Letts, run by the YMCA, gives tuition assistance to dozens of low-income children such as Taru each year. The full cost for the two-week overnight camp for boys and girls ages 8 to 16 is $990, but for low-income families, the YMCA may require as little as $198, or 20 percent of the total cost.

“YMCA’s philosophy is that we don’t turn away anyone, and we try to stay true to that mission,” says Scott Pecking, the camp’s executive director.

Ms. Lee, a Safeway cashier, has sent Taru to the camp four years in row with the help of the tuition assistance program.

“Inner-city children usually don’t get much of a chance to try horseback riding or water-skiing,” Ms. Lee says. “They ride their bike to the playground or the library, and that’s the extent of it. … I just wanted Taru to get an opportunity to try new things and be outdoors.”

One of the camp employees says some of the inner-city children are so unfamiliar with the outdoors that the sounds of the “wild” scare them.

“I’ve heard them be afraid of the sound of crickets,” says Gloria Brown, who works with camp registrations, “but the sirens going off nonstop in their own neighborhoods doesn’t phase them.”

The children certainly get a lot of time outside — more or less all day. On a recent 90-degree summer day, Taru played beach volleyball, tennis and basketball and went swimming. The day begins at 7:15 a.m. and ends about 9:30 p.m.

“He’s exhausted — but in a good way — when he gets back from camp after two weeks,” Ms. Lee says.

Other activities offered at Camp Letts include fishing, soccer, powerboating, archery, sailing, drama, snorkeling, arts and crafts, canoeing, creative writing, softball, windsurfing and water-skiing.

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Initially, Ms. Lee considered the exposure to the outdoors and the many activities available as the main goal of the camp.

However, after hearing from Taru about the various backgrounds from which counselors and children come, she realized that camp is not just about recreational activities.

“I realized that sending him to Camp Letts also taught him how to interact with people from other social and cultural backgrounds,” she says.

The eight other campers in Taru’s cabin were from Silver Spring, Seat Pleasant, Alexandria, and Davidsonville and Crofton, Md.

While the cabin mates agree that they didn’t expect to make long-lasting friendships — except the four from Silver Spring, who already knew one another — they say they enjoyed each other’s company very much.

“I like Jamaal [Parker]; he’s very cool,” says Austin Kendall, 12, from Silver Spring. “We both like music a lot.”

“We enjoy any music where you can hear the guitars,” says Jamaal, also 12, of Seat Pleasant. In fact, Austin was taking a new guitar class offered by Camp Letts, and his entire cabin followed his progress across the strings. “We like Metallica, Linkin Park, P. Diddy, 50 Cent,” Jamaal says.

Something else the campers share is the love of Harry Potter. Many of them had seen the movies, read the books or both. Two of the cabin mates had brought along “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the fifth and most recent book in the series.

“I read it in a couple of days. I ordered it online …,” says Peter Lansworth, 12. “It was really good.”

Peter let Taru borrow the 870-page book. At page 5, Taru wasn’t sure whether he was going to like it.

“We’ll see. There’s almost too much going on. I kinda lose interest,” he said.

When children are in their own neighborhoods, it may become obvious what kind of socioeconomic background they have. At camp, those characteristics become unimportant, says Stephen Gruber, senior program director at Camp Letts.

“Even if those kinds of issues come up, kids tend to forget about it. They tend to not matter,” says Mr. Gruber, who himself came to the camp more than a dozen years ago with the help of tuition assistance.

He says it’s difficult to tell just by looking at children what their background might be. Camp clothes may not tell the full story.

“Even wealthy families may not send along really expensive clothes. I mean, what’s the use? They’ll get dirty or lost here,” Mr. Gruber says. “Here, everyone is equal.”

The children also are exposed to people from other countries because the YMCA often employs camp counselors and crew skippers (who are in charge of the counselors) from various parts of the world.

This year, many of them came from England, including 21-year-old Russell Giblin and 20-year-old Ben Mallam.

“We’re having a great time here. This is a beautiful place, and the sun is shining all the time. Not like England where it’s always gray,” Mr. Giblin says. “But unfortunately, the mosquitoes here seem to go for the English,” he adds, pointing to his bug-bite-covered legs.

Taru’s favorite activity is tennis, and he gives this year’s teacher, Mr. Mallam, high marks:

“I learned a lot and play better now,” Taru says.

Taru, who is spending the summer participating in various camps, including one where he is learning multimedia animation at the Children’s Museum in Northeast, says Camp Letts is his favorite.

Although many other activities (he plays chess regularly at the Benning Branch Library) and academic endeavors (he was awarded a slot at the private St. Anselm’s Abbey School for being a high-achieving student) fill his life, the camp holds a special place in his heart.

In fact, he’s pretty sure that when he turns 18 he wants to come back to Camp Letts in a different capacity, much as Mr. Gruber did.

“I want to come back and be a camp counselor when I’m older,” he says. “I love Camp Letts.”

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