As a summer camp counselor, I saw the ‘two Baltimores’ through children | GUEST COMMENTARY

Children participate in a dance class at the St. Vincent DePaul center in East Baltimore in this 2016 file photo. Camp St. Vincent is a free summer day camp dedicated to serving homeless children in Baltimore city and county. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

In Baltimore’s Roland Park neighborhood, you’ll find bike lanes and gourmet grocery stores and private school students with Starbucks drinks in hand. But go a few miles south, and suddenly food deserts, shootings and homelessness abound.

When compared to the 54 other neighborhoods of Baltimore, Roland Park had the greatest median household income and the third highest white population, according to 2017 data from the Baltimore City Health department, the most recent available. This is in addition to extremely low, or nonexistent, rates of homicide, unemployment, poverty, school absences and teen births.


This past summer I worked at ESF Camps (Education, Sports, Fun) in Roland Park, and later at Camp St. Vincent, which was held in Patterson Park for children experiencing homelessness.

The two-day camps were a mere 5 miles apart, and yet the differences in their kids’ lives were drastic.


At ESF, I was a swim teacher, and our biggest issue was kids being afraid of the water or forgetting their goggles. At St. Vincent, we worried about campers, who might have been struggling with issues of their own safety, threatening adults with plastic knives.

At ESF, I taught a Ravens player’s son how to do elementary backstroke, and at St. Vincent, I taught a girl that she can’t give everyone the middle finger, even if her mom does when frustrated.

At ESF, the Porsches and Teslas in the pick-up line were numerous. At St. Vincent, the bus ride to and from the homeless shelter was the most common place for fights to break out.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, homeless children have three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems of non-homeless children. And it’s no wonder; they’ve often witnessed violence or been a victim of it, have no safe space to call their own, and lack the routines and security that children crave. Few receive professional care for their trauma.

Many of the campers at St. Vincent suffered from impulse control issues, and they tended to form intense emotional attachments to the counselors. One time, they fought over who had the privilege of calling me “mother,” and it resulted in them furiously slapping each other.

They really liked this idea of me as their mom, though, and once they had reconciled and declared themselves both my daughters, they started calling me “Mommy Rich.” We had over a trillion dollars, they said, and I, like their actual moms, did not have a husband. They fantasized about how we’d live in a mansion together with a hot tub, movie theater and dance studio.

“We’d be like Charli D’Amelio!” one of the girls said, referring to the social media star.

It’s not uncommon to dream of being a celebrity or living in a lavish mansion, but the dreams of these children struck me — this life of luxury was something they so ardently desired because of their own austere circumstances.


The stark contrast between ESF and St. Vincent in many ways mirrors the dual nature of Baltimore City, where racial and socioeconomic inequities are deep-rooted, and the lines between the haves and have nots are delineated by ZIP code.

Roland Park, Guilford and Homeland (built in 1891, 1913 and 1924 respectively) were designed as garden suburbs and contained the summer homes of Baltimore’s upper class. These houses offered the privileged elite refuge from the southern parts of Baltimore, a rapidly industrializing area, accumulating pollution and waves of migration — specifically formerly enslaved people. For this reason, Roland Park and surrounding areas were designed to exclude Black people and the poor, setting a precedent for many other “great” American cities and cementing the paths for the two extremes of Baltimore we still see today.

In Roland Park, I opened the door for an 8-year-old to get into his family’s shiny red Tesla, while his dad waited for him with an acai bowl. Yet, 5 miles south, I had to explain to a child of the same age why St. Vincent doesn’t provide dinner.

Audrey Lin ( is a high school junior at Friends School of Baltimore.