by Nathan Harrington
My first job after graduating from college in 2005 was as a middle school math teacher at the now-defunct Merritt Education Center. The school sits at a site once occupied by Suburban Gardens, an amusement park for African-Americans, who were excluded from the white-only Glen Echo Park.
The fact that I was born and raised in the DC area but had never been anywhere east of the Anacostia River was no coincidence. In this profoundly segregated city, most white people are completely unfamiliar with—and often frightened of—the overwhelmingly black, working class neighborhoods that make up the eastern part of Washington.
That first year of teaching was way more than I was ready for, and I quit at Christmas break. But that spring I decided to try to bring a few of my former students to Shiloh. I reached out to six parents. Not surprisingly, only one would let me take their child away for two weeks.
Ruth Smith, mother of five, agreed to send her oldest two, Octavia and Donice. “I was scared at first, but I had to let her go and experience something different. She enjoyed herself and met new friends, a couple of whom she’s kept in touch with. I felt good vibes when I was there,” she says. Four of her children have graduated from Shiloh, and Johnette, the youngest, will be in Unit 1 next year.
That first teaching job changed my life in other ways. I’ve continued to teach in public schools on this side of town, and in 2009 fellow Shiloh counselor George Oakley and I established (with several other F(f)riends), a group house dedicated to peace and service in Congress Heights. We seek to bridge our city’s racial and class divide in our daily lives. We’ve become close with many of our neighbors, two of whom have been to Shiloh for the past two years.
These and many other campers are able to attend thanks to the generous contributions from the BYM Camper Financial Aid pool and Sandy Spring Monthly Meeting’s scholarship fund.
As our camps grow more racially and socioeconomically diverse, I wanted to share the voices of campers for whom coming to camp meant crossing that racial and class divide. In September I asked four of Ruth’s children—plus Tyra and Shadanae from Congress Heights—to talk about their experiences at Shiloh.
Before you come to camp for the first time, what were you expecting it to be like?
Donice: I thought there were going to be whole bunch of people I don’t know, doing things I don’t do. Then I heard that we couldn’t use electronics. I don’t even like being outside, so I was apprehensive. Tyra: I was expecting marshmallows and new friends. I wanted to make s’mores and actually put it in the fire.
What is your favorite thing about Shiloh?
Johnette: the pond. John: Chocolate cake, getting mail, girls. Donice: The first year, my favorite thing was rock-climbing. My second year, I was selected to be in a singing group. I liked canoeing for the first time, although my eye got swollen. The last year, when we had to solos hike, it was really hard, but I enjoyed myself. Tyra: Afternoon activities, knockout. I like unit activities because you get to interact with your peers. Shadanae: The hiking trip was fun. I’m not gonna lie. I didn’t care that everyone’s feet were hurting. We were going up mountains. When I realized that’s what we were doing, it was cool. Time goes by fast if you are talking.
What is hard about being at Shiloh?
John: When they put food in our backs they can be heavy and I get out of breath quickly. Donice: I’m picky about eating. They put onions and green peppers in everything, which I don’t like. Tyra: Hiking is the hardest part. I was not ready for mountains. Four days straight and three nights- that was crazy…I’ve never been rock climbing and you can’t make me.
How is life at Shiloh different from home?
Johnette: The food is different. I’m used to eating fried food, but at Shiloh everything is healthy. Donice: Shiloh is open to the wild. People are very friendly and have a good spirit. You see life without technology. Instead of watching TV, you interact with people.
What have you learned from being at camp?
Ruth: Octavia became an expert on washing dishes and cleaning the bathroom. Sheila: I’m learned to be more independent, to not always depend on my mother. I’m less shy, because at camp you have to get out of your comfort zone and connect with people, or you’re just not going to have a good time. Donice: I’m learned that you don’t always need technology to have a good time. You can go camping once in a while instead of going to the movies. Tyra: I learned to never sit close to a fire, because I got burnt up. I learned how to hide food from bears.
Do you have a favorite camp song?
Johnette: the Alligator Song. John: Hey Look, There’s A Chicken, Sweet Potato Biscuit. Sheila: Oh Light Abide with us. Donice: Sweet Potato Biscuit, Abide with us, Santa Catalina
Has your life outside of camp changed because of your experience at Shiloh?
Johnette: Since going to camp, I am more active and play outside more.” John: I’ve been telling kids at school about camp and how great it is. I’ve learned that there’s another side to me, which is the nice side. So every day I pray and I think about trees. Tyra: I don’t want TV as much anymore. After being at camp and getting used to not watching it, I when I get back I don’t feel like watching. Shadanae: I used to just sit in the house and not do anything. Now I like to travel around and see new places. It made me more adventurous.
Do you have a favorite camp story?
John: There were 19 people on my unit canoeing trip. I bought a Kit Kat bar and had to split it 19 ways. Donice: When I was in Unit 2, there was flying squirrel in our cabin. Brandy tried to hit is with a broom. Emily threw her shoe at it. In the end it wouldn’t leave, so we left.
Would you ever want to be a counselor?
John: Yes. When I was a camper, counselors used to say there weren’t any more cookies, and then they’d go back to their tarp and eat all of them. I want my turn. I also want to get away from home and experience a different world of nature. I want to get a tattoo of a bay leaf on my ankle. Shadanae: I would like to be a counselor, but then I don’t. Actually, I do, because I want to see what’s in that Bat Cave. I love Shiloh. A shout out to everyone who’s going to be there next year.