They are finally asleep. The boys' threats to bang one another are silenced -- for today. Dominic has survived another asthma attack. Meady has exhausted himself, and everyone else, by facing down a counselor. Eboni, after shining a flashlight around her bed, up the adjacent wall of the tent and down her sleepshirt, finally has satisfied herself that there are no bugs in her personal space. It is stiflingly hot up here in the top bunks. Another camper rolls over, and a braid slaps me in the face.
We have taken the kids out to the country from a place in the city so inhumanely conceived, so utterly failed, that officials finally gave up and blew much of it to smithereens last Saturday, but we are as hot and dirty and cantankerous as ever. Since Day 1, the campers have kept up a steady stream of complaints -- about the bugs, the bikes, the food, the bugs, the tents, each other, the bugs -- and even some of the counselors have joined the chorus.
Camp Brightside: where we are having the time of our lives; we just haven't realized it yet.
When we are not fulfilling our role in the insect food chain, we are something of a living laboratory, an experiment in progress.
Hypotheses: That it is beneficial to take 20 kids out of the inner-city projects and give them, for two weeks, the kind of outdoors experience that has nothing to do with drive-by shootings, exhaust-spewing traffic and weedy, fenced-in playgrounds. That hiking, canoeing, biking and eating too many s'mores will result in something more profound than sore muscles, mystery rashes and tummy aches.
Conclusions: It is, and it does. But whatever happens at camp, it's what you take home that matters, even if home has since vanished with the blast of 1,000 pounds of explosives. There are other places to live, and other ways to live.
Someday, when the children of Camp Brightside think back to the summer of 1995, their first memory probably will be the day that Lafayette Courts was blown up, an admission, finally, that high-rise public housing is no place to raise a child.
But maybe they'll also remember it as the summer that took them to another place, a place of glassy lakes and velvet night skies and mornings so quiet that the cry of a single loon echoes over and over across the water.
It was, in the end, the summer that they tested both the wilderness of the Adirondacks and the wilderness of life after Lafayette.
* You won't find Camp Brightside in any of the usual directories or the mailing list of those stores that sell "personalized" care packages to FedEx to Muffy at Camp Lots-A-Richkids.
It is something of a moveable feast, but if you went looking for it, you'd start by taking the JFX into Pennsylvania, up to Wilkes-Barre, and then off the highway into a valley between the Appalachians and the Poconos. That's where Georgie Smith and Mark Fetting live, and that's where Camp Brightside started two years ago, on the third floor of their house.
It sits high atop a hill, just a short walk through the woods to a small lake. It's misty and green there, so picture-perfect that one camper went through an entire rack of postcards at a local drugstore, sure he would find one of the camp.
"I like the big land," a camper said of Camp Brightside. "I love the people who said we can come here."
With 20 acres, Georgie, Mark and their three kids have almost as much space as Lafayette Courts had for more than 800 families. The long-planned demolition of the project in East Baltimore began while the children were away at camp. The city moved families out and turned construction equipment loose to bite chunks out of the six high-rise buildings, preparing them for the implosions that reduced them a week ago to a rubble of bricks and memories. Seventeen low-rises will follow in less dramatic fashion.
The projects, crime-ridden and decaying, a visual reminder of the failure of urban policy, have long been an easy target for soap-boxing. Politicians agreed with parents that the high-rises were particularly inhumane for children, with nowhere to play except the caged-in, open-air hallways that kept them within earshot, or concrete playgrounds so many floors down and who knows how many dangers away.
But if you're 12 years old, and it's the only home you've ever known, you can be homesick for Lafayette Courts; you can miss your video games and candy from the corner grocery store even if you're hiking and canoeing; you can cry for your mother in the middle of the night, even if she's a drunk who beats you.
People who hear about Camp Brightside have two reactions. They can't believe it. They want to somehow become part of it.
One neighbor, a doctor, volunteers to be on call for the little emergencies that crop up; another family offers their backyard pool anytime the kids want to come over. The counselors all seem to have a personal connection to the camp -- Lynn Turner started out as a baby sitter for Mark and Georgie's kids; Wesley Foran joined after her mom sat next to Georgie on a school bus trip and learned about the camp.
No one can quite believe that Georgie and Mark, without any government support or other outside funds, open their home and their lives to some of Baltimore's least advantaged kids. They won't say how much they spend, but you can imagine what it costs to feed, entertain and transport 20 kids and hire 10 counselors and a cook.
Perhaps even more unbelievable than the financial investment, though, is the emotional one. Giving an item to Toys for Tots
every Christmas is one thing; running a camp every year, for the same kids, is something entirely different. It's this commitment, to next year and the next year, that makes you wonder how they do it. And that is what is both so large and so small about Camp Brightside: Georgie and Mark don't expect to save the world; they'd just like a chance at these 20 kids.
I first meet Georgie and Mark on Saturday, June 17, when they drive down to pick up the kids at their school, Charles Carroll of Carrollton Elementary, P.S. 139, on Central Avenue. Georgie, who is 41, is a gangly-limbed, tanned woman in a tank top, running shorts and Tevas, with short bristly hair that is a shock of white, and sharp, intensely blue eyes. Mark, 40, seems as pulled in as his wife is out there; he's compact and athletic, wry and soft-spoken.
They met as high school students, and it was love at first sight. She went to Bryn Mawr, of course, because she is a descendant of M. Carey Thomas, the legendary pre-feminism feminist who helped found the private girls school in 1885. Mark went to Gilman and is also of old Baltimore stock -- his father's family operated a jewelry business for more than 100 years, and his mother's ancestors, after serving in the Civil War, started an iron foundry in Fells Point.
Mark and Georgie remained together in an off-and-on sort of way through college (he went to Penn and she to St. Lawrence in New York); jobs (he became a Wall Street banker and she a
social worker in the Baltimore City Jail); and graduate school (he went to Harvard for his MBA and she to Boston College for a master's in social work). They married and returned to Baltimore and started a family.
Three years ago, though, Mark took a job as president of the Prudential Asset Management Co., which manages retirement funds and is based in Scranton, Pa. It was wrenching, leaving behind family, friends and a city that had been home for generations. Out of that, though, came the first inkling that there ought to be a Camp Brightside for children in Baltimore -- and for their own young family.
"The bottom line is, Mark and I believe so strongly if you are fortunate enough to be given things in your life, you are obligated to give back. This is throwing that right into my kids' faces," Georgie says of sons Conor, 13, and Noel, 8, and daughter Carey, 12. "I really believe I am giving my children a gift, showing them to give beyond that place that you're %J comfortable. Giving money on the phone when someone calls up -- big deal. But to really disrupt your life like this . . . I just feel we are so friggin' lucky. My kids go to private school, we live in a place where, yeah, there's poverty here, but I've always said, if you're going to be poor, be poor in the country. It's rural poverty. It's cleaner. It's not as scary."
Projects and people
Before Camp Brightside, the closest I'd ever gotten to Lafayette Courts was the annual -- to the main post office on Fayette Street every April 15, around midnight. There'd be the usual media festival, the cameras catching the last-minuter filers, the tax protesters waving signs. Someone ought to put up a sign next door: Your tax dollars at work.
Lafayette Courts is the epitome of what we have come to think of as the public dole: Located in one of Baltimore's two poorest neighborhoods, it is largely supported by welfare, food stamps, rent subsidies, Medicaid and the other "handouts" that have sparked today's heated, politicized debates. When you hear calls for ending welfare as we know it, for cracking down on women who get bigger and bigger checks for having more and more babies, for simply getting tough and cutting off those addicted to the drug of public assistance -- Lafayette Courts is what, and who, they're talking about.
What would the policy makers do with someone like Barbara Watkins, I wonder.
We've been back from camp for a couple of days, and I'm looking for my comrades -- it's probably the same feeling that drives veterans to head down to the American Legion hall. I find one of them, Keshawn Newby, in a little wading pool outside one of the low-rises, and meet her grandmother, Barbara Watkins. She takes me into her tidy living room, with plastic slipcovers on the furniture and flowery wallpaper. She is 46 years old and has six children and 19 grandchildren, six of whom live with her.
She fingers a photo album, lingering on pictures of the big Halloween party she has every year to keep the kids off the streets, and then, out of context, up pops a picture of Georgie, Mark and their children. They're beaming and so hearty-looking you can practically smell the crisp air of the mountain in the
background. Ms. Watkins has two grandchildren who attend Camp Brightside, Keshawn and Myrin, both 12.
Keshawn Newby is the only girl among the grandchildren living with Ms. Watkins, and it seemed she wasn't quite a part of the girl culture at camp, with her plainly cropped hair amid the elaborate braids and hair extensions. Myrin Jones, for all the fights he got into, is a sweet kid with a glorious Mad magazine smile that exposes a missing tooth. One day, after raging with one of the counselors, he apologized individually to the rest of us for his behavior. On the day Mark asked the kids to describe their feelings about camp, Myrin wrote: "Camp Brightside helps me control my attitude."
Myrin is, in fact, much of the reason Georgie and Mark started Camp Brightside. He was in second grade when Mark became his mentor through Project RAISE. Mark and a group of Baltimoreans had started RAISE in 1988, inspired by the work of Eugene Lang, the New York philanthropist who promised a group of children in Harlem he'd pay their college tuitions if they graduated high school. RAISE -- it stands for Raising Ambitions Instills Self-Esteem -- focuses on intensive, one-on-one attention to the students as a way of keeping them in school.
When Mark became a reliable presence in Myrin's life, it was not a small thing for a boy who sometimes stays with his father, sometimes with Ms. Watkins, sometimes with his other grandmother. They got together once a week, going to the library or zoo, or just spending the day with Mark's family at their home. Myrin, who had been held back a grade once, loved the attention, and his schoolwork improved, as did his occasional stuttering.
But then Mark took the job in Pennsylvania, and the move threatened to make him another person who had entered Myrin's life -- only to exit again. The camp for Myrin and some of his classmates in the RAISE program became the solution.
Many of the kids at camp live with a grandmother, or a great-grandmother. It's as if their parents' entire generation was decimated by the social breakdown of the inner cities during the 1980s, when these 12-year-olds were born. The crack epidemic and the heightened gun violence that accompanied it. The spread of AIDS among intravenous drug users. The overwhelming rise in illegitimate births, to the point that, by the end of the decade, two-thirds of black children in America were born to single mothers. (In Lafayette Courts, it's even greater: Less than 10 percent of the women who have babies are married.)
The way the campers occasionally talk about their parents makes me think that in some cases the adults are doing the best they can against the overwhelming dangers and despair of their neighborhood. When Dominic Jefferson tells me that his mother says if she ever catches him doing drugs, she'll chop his hands off, hang him out the window and let people shoot at him, I'm struck by both the well-deserved fear behind such a threat and the sense that violence so permeates the culture that it is the only language to draw upon.
One evening, a counselor talks about going out to get a beer on her night off. The boy sitting next to me says solemnly, "You shouldn't be drinking. When my mother goes to those bars, she comes home drunk and starts swinging at me."
Another night, I'm catching one of the baseball games that crop up after dinner every night. It's the best time of day here; dusk falls delicately, the mountains turn misty and the boys look so funny running the bases with their hands holding up the huge shorts that they wear low over bright boxers. It's a scene Ken Burns should be filming, especially when Vernon Carter starts doing his Bawlmer-accented cheer, "Hewm run Dusty, hewm run!"
"My father taught me how to play," one boy says proudly when I ask how he got so good.
"No one taught me," Vernon says. "I taught myself."
It's one thing to learn how to keep your elbows up while batting -- it's nice if your father teaches you, but you can pick it up elsewhere. It's the big stuff, how to be a man, how to be a husband, how to be a father yourself, that threatens to go unlearned.
One night, the boys watch a video of "Angels in the Outfield," the subtext of which, as with most baseball movies, is two boys in search of their fathers. Everyone starts calling the little black boy in the movie Dominic -- and he does look a bit like the shy, skinny camper. Poor Dominic, he's had a rough couple of weeks here: two asthma attacks, a cut near his eye that swelled up like a boxer's after getting clipped by a rock someone tossed across ** the driveway.
The movie ends with the team manager adopting the two boys, hugging them in a gooey close-up, and this particular audience hoots. Except for Dominic. At this point so caught up in his own character, he protests weakly, "No, you guys, don't joke like that."
Baggage left behind
It's hard to escape the way the camp breaks down: The campers are black; Georgie, Mark and the counselors, except for two new ones this year, are white. (I complete the family-of-man look: "What is you?" the kids keep asking. "Do you speak Japan?" I tell them my parents were born in the Philippines, which means nothing to them, and I keep meaning to find an atlas to show them.)
The kids are keenly aware of what it means to be black in America. When Georgie came to town after camp ended and decided to take them for ice cream, I suggested a place in Fells Point. Demetrice "Meady" Grimes, in either real or mock horror said, "Oh, no, there are skinheads there." Once, Georgie recalls, she grew frustrated with all the verbal and actual fisticuffs and asked, "Why do you guys fight so much?" One kid responded, "It's in our genes."
The way that camp perpetuates the stereotypes of their world is a troubling issue -- the givers are white and "have," the takers are black and "have-nots." Darryl Green, coordinator of the campers' RAISE program, says he was disturbed that some of the kids came back from camp the first year saying, "Aw, I wanna be white." Darryl, who is black, says he tries to combat that by bringing black achievers, like Dr. Ben Carson, the renowned pediatric neurosurgeon at Hopkins, in to speak with the kids.
Being in camp and away from Baltimore, though, seems to free us of some of the usual baggage. Here, the racial differences tend to be benign, differences in our cultural reference points that seem funny rather than worrisome. One night, two counselors pick some books by Shel Silverstein, he of those slim volumes of faux-naif fables, to read aloud to the kids. The counselors find him charming, smiling to themselves as they read the stories and poems to the campers gathered around them.
C7 "That phony," Vernon snorts after listening through
"The Missing Piece."
"Why all them so corny?" Keshawn asks.
Another night, when the counselors sing "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain," camper David Dodd is baffled by the verse, "She'll be wearing red pajamas when she comes." For days afterward, he tries to figure it out. Over and over, he asks the same question: "If she's going to spend the night, why doesn't she just pack a bag?"
At 12, give or take a year in some cases, the kids seem to be wavering between separating themselves -- boys in one van, girls in another -- and tentatively stepping across that great divide. Here at camp, with the heat and the sheer nearness of each other, all the confused feelings and the urge to explore them bubble to the surface.
They are curious about the counselors' love lives, and by inference, what their own will be like, or should be like. The girls frequently ask Daron Hines, the only black male counselor, to see his picture of his girlfriend. They pass it among themselves, silently scrutinizing it as if to divine some sort of truth.
They still seem so innocent -- Cierra West sucks her thumb, and Keshawn brought a teddy bear to camp -- but that innocence is fleeting. Their chatter is already filled with references to girls who have babies -- one has twins -- and rumors that someone is pregnant. "I saw her stomach," one kid reports. "It was tight!"
I think of the news reports from their neighborhood: In April, three boys, between 9 and 11 years old, raped a 10-year-old girl in a vacant apartment at Lafayette Courts. Twice in the last several years, newborn babies were found tossed in a trash chute in one of the high-rises.
The violence, the pregnancies. I look at the girls, and I wish they didn't have to grow up so fast or so hard. They seem so quickly maturing, all curvy and knowing and moody. One boy tells a counselor he's already done it. And one evening, a counselor unzips a tent to find a girl and boy inside. The rest of the kids are still gossiping about what, if anything, happened.
The second week of camp is devoted to a canoe trip in the Adirondacks in upstate New York: planning and packing for a couple of days, a daylong drive and three nights of sleeping in relative wilderness. The idea is for the kids, divided into small groups, to control their destiny, vote on what meals to bring, pick out tents and supplies. But these kids have long figured this camp out -- no one is going to let them starve or freeze to death.
True to form, the first night in the mountains begins with a crisis: Keon Miller gets thrown into the lake, then discovers he has left his clothes and sleeping bag behind in Pennsylvania. The next morning, most of the kids in Keon's group sleep late, waking up after the counselors already have had breakfast, so they decide to have . . . Snickers bars.
After breakfast, we canoe out to a more remote area of the park -- three ponds dotted with islands, where each group is to set up camp at least a quarter-mile away from any other campsite. One group chooses a tiny island where a no-camping sign is posted on a tree.
That night, as the sun-sparkled water turns glassy, the boys go cruising, probably the same way they do at home. Here, though, it is by canoe and from island to island. The boys like having their own canoes, but use the unorthodox technique of paddling from the front, rather than the rear position that a solo canoist should use. Maybe it's more like being in the driver's seat.
"Why, you ain't nothing but down the street from us," Myrin says delightedly when he discovers that Georgie and her group have picked a campsite on the same island as his.
The next day, though, a ranger busts us. He throws the illegally camped group off its island, and makes Georgie's group move farther away from the neighboring campsite. The indomitable Georgie, who has plunged cheerfully through all crises -- from asthma attacks to twisted ankles to her husband forgetting to take their own son Conor with the kids when they went for ice cream -- breaks down and cries.
It is, finally, something for the kids to write in the journals each group is supposed to keep. Vernon draws an impressionistic picture of the lakes and trees; another boy sketches a rude picture of the ranger. One child has written, anonymously, "Please do not forget me even if I do not come back next year."
We're all aware of how soon camp will end. Myrin is going through the rest of the days: Tomorrow we do this, then the day after, we do that. "And on Saturday," he says, "I'm going to cry."
Saturday is when we drive back to Baltimore.
Mark gives me something to take back home, the short essays the kids wrote one afternoon when we visited him in his office. He asked them to describe themselves, their families and what they thought of Camp Brightside. Their scrawl is childish -- the girls with their "i's" dotted with circles, the boys with huge handwriting after Mark said they probably have enough to say to fill both sides of the page. But their words are those of valiant souls, grounded in reality, but not beaten by it.
"The thing I like about myself is I can sing do hair and that I am in love. The thing I like about Camp bright side is that you go place you never went befor," Eboni Powell wrote. "But the thing I don't get is that they pay to much for us and they car about us."
"I live in east Baltimore. I live with my Grandmom. I have no friends. I have socializers," Meady wrote. "I like Camp Brightside because it very fun it the frist camp I been too that let's you have fun and breake the rule too."
"Camp bright side bring out the joy in me. Mark and Georgie Fetting Smith make me feel good and great about me," Keon wrote.
And Vernon's: "Camp is fun because you do not have to get kill by a gun."
"Here come the projects," Meady announces as our caravan gets off Interstate 83 and heads east. As we pull up to the school, a sprinkling of family members are waiting to walk the kids home. In a flurry of hugs and waves and retrieved bags, the crowd disperses.
XTC With the sidewalk suddenly emptied, it's apparent no one has come for five of the kids. Keon and Carl Johnson head off together down Fayette Street, two stout boys weighed down even further by their sleeping bags and luggage. Dominic and two of the girls are left standing, their bags around them, their eyes downcast, not sure what to do.
Georgie puts them back in her car and asks how to get to where they live.
Mark chases down Carl and Keon, in the midst of what Carl calls "Death Valley," where moving vans are ferrying neighbors away and construction machines hack at empty buildings. Keon is in his silent mode, and Carl's big brown eyes are moist. They both learn they're moving, soon.
I return a couple of days later to find Keon's family packing. His mother, Esther Brown, discovers they can move into their new place today if they want, so Keon and I hit the streets in search of boxes.
I'd been curious to meet Keon's mother after two weeks of hearing, "Peanuts, get your peanuts!" That's how the kids "crack" on Keon. In their world of welfare checks and handouts, it's laughable to them that she has a job, a supposedly menial one at Camden Yards.
Ms. Brown turns out to be a chin-up, energetic woman, a traffic cop directing her kids as they pack their apartment. "So many memories!" she exclaims between drags on a cigarette. She remembers all her apartments: 11D, a one-bedroom. Then, after her second daughter, Renata, was born, 11J. After Keon, 6K, where they've been ever since, through the birth of Sherrice, now 6. She's been in public housing 20 years, so long she can't even imagine taking the option of a Section 8 certificate, which could be used in a private rental. Landlords, utility bills, who needs it? They will relocate to Flag Court, a couple of blocks to the south. This way, they can stay in the neighborhood, and the kids can go to their same schools.
"You all want to go see it? It's nice. You all are going to like it," Ms. Brown says hopefully. "It's on Pratt Street, you know, where all the parades are."
We walk down there, and it turns out to be a freshly painted townhouse. Keon is mostly silent. But the girls detect their mother's pleasure in finally having a yard, a small weedy patch, to be sure, but after years of high-rise living, a piece of the good earth.
"Mama, didn't you say you're gonna plant some flowers?" Sherrice says.
"And set up a little grill?" Renata adds.
"You can play out there," Ms. Brown says. "And I can watch you."