On Monday morning, as parents scrambled around the Capitol preparing for one last push before recess, many of their children sat around a conference table in the Cannon House Office Building drawing pictures and talking about what laid in store for this week’s activities.
“We’re going to the Pentagon!” 6-year-old Adelaide Elliot-Joy said with elation. “And the Capitol!”
“I come here a lot of times when I’m sick,” 8-year-old Katie Kaelin said.
“I came here with my dad on my birthday,” 8-year-old Austin Hodges added. “We went to the cafe.”
Don’t confuse this scene with the standard affairs at the House of Representatives Child Care Center. This is the beginning of what could be a whole new feature of the Congressional experience: summer camp for the children of House employees.
Orchestrated by the House Office of the Chief Administrative Officer and based on an idea by Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), a weeklong summer enrichment program will take more than 20 children, ages 6-14, around Washington, D.C. — to monuments, museums and government buildings — to expand their understanding of and appreciation for what their parents do on the Hill.
The underlying motivations for launching the program are twofold. One came out of Clay’s desire to give his children something to do during the day when they came to visit from St. Louis. In addition, Clay, who commutes home on the weekends, wanted to spend time with Carol, 14, and Will, 7, while also showing them a slice of his world.
“I was a Congressional brat growing up, so I was always very familiar with the Capitol,” said Clay, whose father and namesake also was a Democratic Congressman from Missouri’s 1st district. As he spoke in an office filled with family photographs, Carol and Will sat in an adjoining room talking with members of his staff. “I want my kids to know the police, the staffers, the people who work here, my colleagues.
“It’s great for kids to be associated with the building, getting familiar with it, building relationships throughout their lives,” Clay continued. “Plus it gives kids the chance to be close to their parents.”
Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard said he was drawn to the idea of a summer program because it fell so closely in line with his mission to make the Capitol more “family- friendly.”
“With so many people working here, it really is like a family,” Beard said. “The more we can provide a family-friendly workplace and good benefits for employees, the better.”
Beard hopes that next year the program can be expanded to six weeks and take on a wider range of activities. This year’s weeklong pilot program will be used to determine what worked and what didn’t, how much funding would be required for an extended term and other logistics. He also emphasized that the program is aimed at including children of parents who fill different types of roles in the House, from CAO gift shop manager and historical preservation curator to reading clerk and Member of Congress.
A full week of activities, including a trip to the White House and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, kicked off on Monday with a guided tour of the Capitol and a meeting with the Capitol Police, complete with bomb squad and canine demonstrations.
As the kids followed their guide through the building’s twists and turns, their memories and associations with their lives in the Capitol kept bubbling to the surface. In the Speaker’s dining room, one young girl raised her hand and exclaimed, “When I was little they let us eat graham crackers in there!” When told that the Speaker’s Gallery was for authorized persons only, another girl asked, “Could my mom go here?”
Will Clay, who for the most part was quiet during the tour, had eyes that constantly were moving around the space, absorbing the sights. He’s been in the Capitol many times before, his father said: When he goes to vote, he takes Will to the floor and lets his son put his card in the slot.
While his co-campers were enthralled with the whispering gallery, Will was most excited by the subway ride between buildings: “I’ve been on it a bunch of times with my dad.”
Asked what his father did on the Hill, Will replied, “I don’t know, but he’s a Congressman.”
Beard laughed when he heard the anecdote: “I’ve always worked around here. When I’d go home at the end of the day and try to talk to my kids about my job, they’d say, ‘Boring!’ But when my granddaughter, who’s 2 years old, went on the subway, her eyes were as big as saucers.
“How many kids have this kind of opportunity?” he continued. “When I was growing up, the Capitol was just a picture in a book. These kids get to live history. They may only be 8 or 9 years old, but all this sinks in … they understand it. They get that what their moms and dads do is important.”