Brian dribbled the soccer ball slowly down the grass, aimed in the direction of the goal, gave a mighty kick -- and completely missed.

But counselors cheered a good try, friends slapped him on the back, and somehow, on this last day of a soccer camp for mentally handicapped children, his imperfections didn't matter at all. Brian smiled.

The 15-year-old was one of about 75 people enjoying a free week of camp at the Elks' Camp Barrett in Crownsville last week.

"The best thing about this week is the kids," said Mike Hicks, a camp counselor. "They give it all they can, even if they're slow. They help eachother and give each other lots of hugs. They tell each other when they do something good -- it encourages them."

And when the tasks are just too much for these children, who suffer from illnesses such asDown's syndrome, they keep on trying, Hicks said.

"Yesterday one guy playing goalie let the ball past and the other team scored, and he started to cry because he thought he'd let his team down," said Hicks. "I told him he'd do better next time, and all evening, he'd pick up the ball and practice, over and over."

This is the second year the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Elks Association has been host for the Special Olympics at the camp, a green, 180-acre oasis of playing fields and wooded areas with a large pool and newly renovated pine cabins.

For 10 weeks every summer, the Elks run a free camp for children from the tri-area, sponsored by the 44 lodges in Maryland, Delaware andWashington. The camp itself dates back to the 1940s.

"The marvel is that all the funds are raised by donations," said Linda Bushey, camp director. "All of the work -- the maintenance of the buildings andall the electrical work -- is done by volunteers from the Elks lodges."

On a hot, green field one morning last week, the campers splitinto groups to practice different soccer skills -- passing, dribbling, shooting.

"Just follow me," said one counselor to a 12-year-old. "Walk down with me."

He set off, nudging the ball with his foot down a dotted line toward some orange cones as the child walked wide-eyed beside him. The camper then followed suit, beaming as he propelled the ball in an uneven line down the field.

Each day, the campers practiced soccer skills, then turned out for swimming and hiking and special programs like Indian dances.

"I'm proud. He taught us how to do stuff -- the coach. I like being here with my buddy Mike," said camper Brian Stull, 15, of Fredericksburg, throwing an arm around his counselor.

The counselor hugged him back. "I like being with you, too," he said.

The campers -- ranging in age from about 10 to as old as 40 -- clustered in groups, some swaying back and forth, some wearing helmets to protect them.

"I like gettin' to know new people," said camper Patty Miller, 20, of Calvert County. "I liked some of the food -- the eggs, the spaghetti."

The hardest moment of herweek, Miller said, was trying to dive. "But I learned how. Someone showed me how," she said, beaming.

Joe Bevelhimer, a staff member with Special Olympics of Maryland, praised the Elks for paying for theentire week.

"In a sports sense, it's good because the campers work on one thing the whole way through the week," he said. "In anotherway, they're getting out of their homes and on their own for the week. That's good for handicapped kids, the same as for anybody."

Several of the campers came to Came Barrett through a Camp American foreign exchange program, Bushey said.

"We have several from Britain, a Dutch fellow and a person from Spain," she explained. "It adds a nice cultural touch."

Neither the counselors nor director Bushey is getting rich on the endeavor, and they have just 24 hours of free time, once a week.

But, said Bushey, "This week especially is one of those times that makes you know why you do it. The appreciation of these kids is wonderful."

Counselor Hicks was sweating in his yellowcoach's shirt, but he, too, wouldn't trade his job for anything.

"They want so much to please you," he said. "They say, 'Were we good last night? Did we do good for you?' They're so sweet, it makes you feel good."

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