"Who lost a tooth over the weekend?"
It's a question Tezah Waters posed to 31 youngsters Monday morning at the Police Activities League (PAL) summer camp at Gerald Adams Elementary School.
One little hand went up. The young camper smiled broadly, exposing the space where a tooth was indeed missing.
Waters, known around town as Captain Tez, is the director of the Key West branch of the PAL summer camp, which she started six years ago, and is sponsored by the local PAL program. Previously, she was the director of the Key West YMCA before its closing.
That first year, Waters had to stand on the side of the street to ask parents to let their children give the camp a try. Today, she has a waiting list of more than 40, according to counselor Megan Turso.
"We base our expectations on our motto, 'It's Up To You,'" said Turso, adding the counselors work hard to insure the children are enjoying "a free flowing, safe environment".
With only three drivers on staff able to take campers on field trips, PAL can host a maximum of 36 campers each summer. The camp is booked at least a year in advance.
This summer is the first time new campers have had the opportunity to sign up, as several campers aged out of the program. All the kids who started six years ago are still in the program today, Waters said.
Campers can enter the program as early as kindergarten and stay until they're high school age.
The middle-school group is called Camp Adventure. It focuses on teaching leadership and life skills.
Participants also take separate field trips, usually incorporating activities involving the ocean.
"Learning how to paddleboard and going to research centers with Camp Adventure were my favorite," said Jillia Duclo, 11, who has been in the program since it first opened in 2009.
Other enjoyable field trips include visits to the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, touring the fire department, and seeing the police station -- as civilians.
"We learn in fun ways," said nine-year-old Julia Baeder.
Over the course of the summer, the children learn exactly 77 words and phrases in sign language, as well as several simple phrases such as "good morning" in seven different languages.
"When kids can't use their words, they can always use their hands," Waters said. "I would rather have 20 campers signing at me than 20 voices asking questions all at once."
Guest speakers join the campers each week to educate them on a variety of topics, including dental hygiene, recycling, germs and general health.
Camp activities include pajama pancake days, where a speaker from a local ghost tour visits to tells stories, and beauty makeover days that even the boys enjoy.
Uniquely, the camp prohibits candy and soda on its premises. Parents are encouraged to pack healthy lunches. The snacks provided by PAL are either a fruit or vegetable.
"I used to hear, 'I don't want to go to camp,' until I brought my daughter here," said parent Kim Hutchinson.
Hutchison described the program as the "best camp ever."