Ed Donnellan leaned on the railing overlooking Notre Dame Preparatory School's pool and smiled at the children and teenagers splashing about.
Thirty years ago, he had organized the first Camp Umoja, the brainchild of Sister Helen Marie Duffy, SSND, then NDP's headmistress. The idea then and now was to bring Baltimore children ages 5 to 11 to the Towson area campus for a summer camp.
"It's amazing how long this camp has been serving these kids," Donnellan said. He remembers Duffy approaching him about starting the camp while he was the school's director of service programs in 1985. "She saw a great opportunity for both the students and the children to grow from this," he said.
Three decades later, the program is going strong, and the tuition hasn't changed. It's still $10. About 45 children attend one of two two-week camp sessions on the school's Dulaney Valley campus. The volunteer counselors are students from NDP, as well as Loyola Blakefield and Calvert Hall.
This year's theme, Time Travel, is woven through the academic and crafts sessions each day. Campers have learned about hieroglyphics and learned a little about Camp Umoja's history. But these children aren't sitting down, said Steve Pomplon, the camp director for the past eight years. They conduct science experiments, make fossil casts and practice swimming. "We try to make it fun, active, hands-on, cooperative," Pomplon said.
Treyon Miller, 11, is a camp veteran. This is his eighth camp; he started coming with his brother Jonte, now a senior in high school. "I like the stuff that we do," he said. That includes swimming, where he has done up to 15 laps in the pool to earn his "killer whale" swimming badge.
"I like everything about this camp," said 9-year-old Tyler Newkirk, who has attended the camp for three years. "The best part of this camp is you get to experience new things," he said.
And that both campers and counselors benefit from the experience. "It's an amazing connection students make with the campers and vice versa," Donnellan said. "You break down barriers when you see kids face-to-face and learn their names."
Pomplon says he sees shy kids get off the buses on the first day but as friendships develop between counselor and camper, the personalities emerge. He said the two weeks of fun isn't intended to change the world, but he hopes it helps the children in the long run. "What do two weeks do? You change a bit inside perhaps," Pomplon said. "It's neat seeing the connections form during the two weeks."
Mumbi Wainaina, an NDP junior from Towson, agrees.
"I like doing it for the kids," Wainaina said. "That moment when the kids want to be with you" makes it special, she said.
Eleni Chakales, another NDP junior from Towson, values the relationships with the children, too. Her favorite moment is "when they first get off the bus and can pick what they can do."
NDP students don't say goodbye to the campers at the end of the two weeks. The girls hold a party for the campers every month through the year at Douglass homes. They call it Club Umoja, said Sydni Thomas, an NDP senior in her third year as a counselor.
"We get a lot of support," Pomplon said. Major funding comes from Notre Dame Preparatory, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, the Baltimore Community Foundation and the Abell Foundation. He noted that Towson area restaurants, including Greene Turtle, Papa John's, Pepe's and Chick-fil-A, provide lunches for the campers. Alumnae and school staff help out, too. Chris DiMenna, an NDP teacher, is the swim instructor and Jess Nanney, an alum, writes the curriculum every year.
Thomas said she has been touched by her three years as a counselor.
"I'm sure my life has been changed for the better," said the Lutherville resident. She said she has become more patient and developed a deeper respect for the children in her care. "It's made me open my eyes," she said.
It's opened her heart, too. On the first day at the pool, she was watching her new charge Lloyd paddling in the water and as he neared her, she scooped him up in her arms.
"Thank you so much," he told her. "You saved my life."
Thomas smiled as she related the story. "It's the little things that matter, I guess," she said.