Jill and James Langford laugh when they talk about buying their expansive grounds in the country, a few miles south of Notre Dame. “We moved out there to be private — to get away from it all,” says Jim ‘59, an adjunct assistant professor in ND’s core course and former director of Notre Dame Press. Jill ’80, the owner of publishing company Diamond Communications, nods in agreement. “We had moved out here to do our own thing,” she says, “and felt a bit selfish.”
Step outside their house, with its airy floor plan, and the shouts of children drown out any semblance of privacy or selfishness or getting away from it all. There are children playing basketball on an asphalt court in front of a set of bleachers. There are children giggling on a swing set. There are children building castles in the sand pit, children heading into a small clubhouse, children on the baseball diamond, children climbing a wooden playhouse, children talking, children riding bikes, children, children everywhere.
Only two of them are Langford children. The rest, about 20 on this sunny spring afternoon, are part of the “There Are Children Here” day camp run by the Langfords on their country property in Lakeville. Keeping an eye on the free-flowing activities are several volunteers, most of them Notre Dame students.
In the midst of it all are Jill and Jim, who appreciate the irony of the trip they made from seeking privacy to seemingly never having a moment’s peace. The Langfords adopted Trevor in 1990 and moved to the expansive property in 1993, the same year they adopted Emily. That’s also the year Jim’s core course was reading There Are No Children Here, by Alex Kotlowitz, a visiting professor of American studies at Notre Dame. The book details the lives of two inner-city children in Chicago’s Henry Horner projects; children whose childhood is lost in a blur of the neighborhood’s frequent gunfights and drug deals. That’s when Jim started dinnertime discussions with Jill about turning their 16-acre property into an area where disadvantaged children can be children and play.
Their own two children are biracial, and Trevor is learning-challenged, notes Jim. “Dealing with him and his problems put us in touch with a lot of different people,” he says. What the Langfords discovered was that disadvantaged children in South Bend also are often limited in what they can do for fun. “The kids can’t go to Muessel Park,” he says about a park near downtown South Bend. “There are drugs sold there.”
Taking a deep breath, the couple built a baseball diamond on their lot and opened the camp in 1994. Since then the Langfords have added a clubhouse, with a kitchen where snacks are prepared and a fireplace for group reading sessions; a little theater building for impromptu theatricals; a basketball court; sand pit; and a variety of other play spaces. Biking trails meander through the nearby woods.
During the school year, local children ages 4 to 11 from seven different groups (such as the local Boys & Girls Club), can be found at the camp from 4 to 6 p.m. four days a week. “There’s a core of 150 to 200 kids who come here often,” says Jim. Over the summer, the camp is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., five days a week, again for children recommended by local groups and centers. Two or three paid staff members assist during the summer.
In case that doesn’t sound busy enough, the Langfords added something new a few years ago. Now, about six or seven times a year, the camp brings in Latino and African-American children from parochial schools in Chicago, sponsored by the Inner-City Teaching Corps. Those campers take the South Shore to South Bend on Friday night, sleep over in the camp’s clubhouse, take a tour of Notre Dame on Saturday and hop back onto the train Saturday evening.
Ask some of the afternoon children what they like best about the day camp and they wiggle with pent-up excitement. “I like coming here,” says 12-year-old David. “The activities are really neat-o and the programs are so cool.” He especially likes playing soccer and basketball. When it’s raining, he says, everybody gathers in the clubhouse to watch movies, play with the computer or the foosball game or just sit and snack. “I like the Rice Krispies,” he reveals.
A different David, age 11, has his own list of favorites: basketball, the teeter-totter, the sand pits, the computer. “And the Notre Dame volunteers,” he adds seriously. “They’re nice, they’re funny and they like to talk about personal things.”
And 9-year-old Amanda wants everyone to know that her very favorite thing is playing on the teeter-totter with Jilly. When another child threatens to interrupt her list, she quickly throws in, “and I like to play with the dog!” The bassett hound, Danielle, was named by Emily Langford to honor Danielle Green ‘99, who was a guard on the women’s basketball team while at ND and a volunteer at the camp.
The volunteers are a little less excitable but no less enthusiastic. “We just play with them; let the kids be kids,” says Marissa Moschel, a Notre Dame sophomore. She particularly likes that there is no organized schedule of activities; when the children arrive they are free to join any group or activity they wish. “That’s the fun of it,” she says.
“It’s as much fun for the students as it is for the kids,” says Maura Malloy ’02, who worked during the summer program last year. “It gets rid of some stress of studying.”
Stress is something the Langfords hope to ease for the campers, too. “A lot of these kids are really afraid,” says Jill, who occasionally does a quick batch of laundry when a day camper is scared to go home because his clothes are dirty. “They get shouted at all the time,” adds Jim, who encourages volunteers to keep that fact in mind.
The few rules of the camp are not arbitrary, says Jim, and are explained to the children when they arrive. “The desire to teach them to make good decisions never changes,” he says.
The camp also helps dispel one gnawing problem. “They’re always hungry,” says Jill. Snacks are constantly available in the clubhouse, and the children are sent home with a packed bag of food. The children frequently share their food bags with siblings, Jill notes. “We find a lot of that — how much they care for each other.”
One thing the Langfords also found was how difficult it is for them to say farewell at the end of each camping session. “We wanted to adopt about every other one,” says Jill.
The Langfords also have learned that social justice projects don’t come cheap or easy. “Teaching social justice is one thing,” says Jim, “But to do it . . .”
Insurance eats up a third of the camp’s yearly $22,000 budget. The presence of hate groups in the area means no sign identifies the location of the camp. And Jim himself has opted to avoid the route of grants and public funding, preferring to stump for private donations instead. An endowment, says Jim, “would take the edge off of it.”
And yes, there is another price; mainly, says Jill, fatigue. Then the kids and the volunteers arrive, and the organized chaos begins. “We’ve never questioned why we did it,” says Jill, who’s so energetic she can barely sit still. “I have relied on grace to persevere,” says Jim, whose heart surgery last year has forced him to slow down a bit. “This has brought my faith alive.”
Carol Schaal is managing editor of this magazine.
Photo by Lou Sabo
Contact the Langfords at:
21550 New Road
Lakeville, IN 46536