“I don’t get it,” Bess Marvin said as she looked at her watch. “George is never late. I wonder what’s keeping her.”
“She’s been so busy recently,” Nancy Drew said. “When she’s working with the kids at that community center, she loses all track of time. Her job sounds intense, but she really loves it.”
Bess gave Nancy a sideways glance, then grinned. “Has George been after you to do some volunteering, too?” she asked. “Every time I talk to her, it’s always, ‘So, when are you going to come see the place?'”
“Okay, I give up. When?” a familiar voice demanded.
Nancy glanced over her shoulder and gave George Fayne a welcoming smile. At five feet eight, George was taller than both Nancy and Bess. Her short, brown hair formed a curly cap on her head. She was wearing her usual outfit — faded jeans, a T-shirt, and running shoes.
“I’m sorry I’m late, you guys,” George said, out of breath. “A couple of kids got into an argument and I didn’t want to leave until things were straightened out.”
“No problem,” Nancy said. “We’re next in line for a table, so your timing is perfect.”
“A little too perfect,” Bess added with a grin. “If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you planned it this way.”
The three friends were meeting for lunch after their various morning activities. They had picked the mall as a place to meet because it was centrally located. Now they were led to an empty table next to the railing, overlooking a fountain on the main plaza level.
“It’s good to sit down,” Bess said as she sank into her seat and rested shopping bags against her chair. She glanced at the menu. “I’ll have a burger and an iced tea,” she said when the waitress appeared.
George ordered a turkey burger and Nancy ordered an avocado and sprouts sandwich on pita bread.
“You guys are too healthy for me,” Bess said. “Give me a good old hamburger any day.”
“Speaking of healthy,” George said, “have you thought about an afternoon or two volunteering at CARING? It’s rewarding, it’s good exercise, and it helps a lot of kids.”
“I’m thinking about it,” Nancy replied. “What does the name stand for again?”
“Community After-school Recreation In Neighborhood Groups,” George said. “It’s a really great program. We have sports, crafts, discussion groups, and creative writing. The kids are mostly junior-high-school age, and the counselors are really terrific. Next Saturday, we’re having an in-line skating marathon. If you were to start now, you could be part of it.”
“I’d like to find out more about the program, Nancy replied. “But I’m not sure I’d have much time to devote to it right now.”
“Whatever time you could give would be a help,” George said. “Bess? How about you?”
“I don’t know. You know I’m not much of an athlete, George,” Bess replied.
“I’m not expecting you to coach the field hockey team,” George said. “There’s a lot more to CARING than sports. One of our big efforts now is raising money for the program by selling cartons of high-energy snack bars door-to-door. You’d be terrific at that.”
“High-energy snack bars?” Bess repeated. She glanced down at the bean sprouts on Nancy’s plate. “You know how I feel about health food, George.”
“You don’t have to eat them,” George replied quickly. “Just sell tons of them. I have an idea. How about if I take you both over to the recreation center tomorrow afternoon, show you around, and introduce you to the director, Lena Boling. She’s been with the organization for about a year, and from what everybody says, she’s made a real difference in that time. I think you’ll see why CARING’s so important to me.
“Fair enough,” Nancy said. Bess nodded her agreement.
The next afternoon, Nancy picked up George and Bess in her blue Mustang. It was a beautiful day — sunny and not too chilly.
“Which way, George?” Nancy asked as she backed out of the Fayne driveway.
“It’s on the South Side, across the street from Washington Park,” George told her.
“I know where that is,” Nancy said. “It’s near one of my favorite antique stores.”
Twenty minutes later, Nancy turned onto Washington Avenue. Old trolley tracks were visible down the center of the asphalt. Brick buildings from the turn of the century lined both sides of the street.
“Turn left at the next corner,” George said.
Nancy turned the car onto a tree-shaded street and drove by a row of modest, neatly kept homes. The houses were nearly touching, but each one had a small patch of lawn out front. There were basketball hoops mounted on many of the garages and bicycles leaned on kickstands in the driveways.
Two blocks later, a large park appeared on the right.
“This is pretty,” Bess said.
“It’s called Washington Park,” George said. “You’ll love it. It’s got everything — a municipal pool, tennis courts, playing fields, even a nature trail. And CARING is over there,” she added, pointing to a red brick building on the corner. “We can park around the side.”
Nancy drove around the corner of the building and pulled into a parking spot. As they got out of the car, she glanced up at the building. It was three stories high, with a gray slate roof and four brick chimneys, one of which was clearly in disrepair. To Nancy, the place looked as if it had seen better days. A sign on the lawn read Clelland Recreation Center. A smaller wooden sign below it read C.A.R.I.N.G.
“The Clelland family built this house and lived here for many years,” George explained as they started up the walk. “They left it to the town. CARING shares it with other community organizations.”
Nancy paused to admire the panels of stained glass on either side of the oak front door. Then she followed George and Bess inside.
They found themselves standing in a huge entrance hall. On the left was a large rectangular room with an elaborate fireplace at the far end. Nancy could see French doors, which led to a glassed-in porch.
They climbed the wide stairs to the second floor. One of the doors down the hall was open. George tapped on it, then went in.
“Hi, Lena,” she said. “I’d like you to meet my friends Bess Marvin and Nancy Drew. They’re thinking about doing some work here.”
“Oh, yes. Come on in,” Lena replied.
Lena’s round face, pert nose, and pixie-cut black hair made her look about twelve years old. But Nancy figured that Lena had to be at least in her twenties.
“What do you say we start with a quick overview?” Lena said. She led them to some folding chairs near the windows.
As soon as they were all seated, Lena began. “What’s different about CARING is that it’s aimed at kids in their early teens. There are lots of programs for grade-school kids. And by high school, there’s not as much need for a structured program. But in between, there’s a real need for a program like this. A lot of our children come from single-parent families or families where both parents work. That means no one’s home when they get out of school. We’re trying to fill that gap by offering an exciting after-school program.”
“How big is the program?” Bess asked.
“We have around sixty-five kids signed up now,” Lena said. “Not all of them come every day, though. Our goal is to be about twice that size. What’s holding us back is lack of money and a shortage of counselors. We depend entirely on volunteers. We simply don’t have money for paid staff.” With a laugh, she added, “We can’t even afford the tiny salaries the treasurer and I earn — when we get them, that is.”
“You’d really enjoy working here,” George told Nancy. “I know you would. And you’d make a terrific counselor.”
“Have you had any experience working with children?” Lena asked. “Do you have any special skills? Sports? Crafts?”
“Nancy is good at just about every sport. And Bess has done tons of baby-sitting,” George said quickly. “I know they’ll be great with the kids.”
Lena turned to gaze out the window. After a moment, she said, “Why don’t you try it out this week? We could work out a flexible schedule. No commitments on either side. It would be like a trial period.”
Nancy glanced at Bess, who gave a hesitant nod. “Okay. I’ll give it a shot,” Bess said.
“I will, too,” Nancy said.
“All right,” George said.
“Good. I know you’ll find it rewarding,” Lena said. She stood up. “Would you like to take a look around?”
“Sure,” Nancy said.
Lena walked to the door. “Josh?” she called. “Do you have a minute?”
A moment later, a young man appeared in the doorway. He gave Nancy, Bess, and George a warm smile. He was tall, with broad shoulders and sandy-colored hair.
Nancy returned Josh’s smile. Then she caught a glimpse of the dreamy expression on Bess’s face. Nancy smiled to herself. Bess clearly found Josh attractive.
“Josh, I want you and George to give Bess and Nancy a quick tour.”
“No problem,” Josh said. “We can start with the girls’ soccer game.”
“Great,” Bess said. “I love soccer.” Nancy caught George’s eye and the two smiled.
“This should be a lively game,” Josh said as he held the front door. “We’re playing the YES team.”
“YES is another youth program,” George explained. “The two teams share the facilities of the park and they’re traditional rivals.”
“Good-natured rivals, I hope,” Nancy said. “That could make things pretty exciting.”
From the other side of a band of trees came a burst of cheers and groans. Josh started walking faster. The three girls hurried after him.
Soon they reached the soccer field. Josh went over to speak to one of the spectators, then rejoined the girls. “YES just scored, so we’re down, one-zip,” he said. “It could be worse, I guess. We’re the team in the green shirts.”
Nancy scanned the field. The CARING goal was close enough for her to see the look of determination on the goalkeeper’s face. The look turned to frustration, Nancy noticed. She looked down the field and saw the YES center forward ahead of the pack, kicking the ball up the field with no opposition.
The goalie shifted to the left, anticipating the shot, hoping to block it. The YES forward spotted the movement and quickly passed to a teammate.
Nancy held her breath as she watched the scene unfold. The goal was wide open, she knew.
An instant later, a burst of cheers came from the YES supporters as the ball found its mark and a point was scored.
“Too bad,” Nancy said to her companions. She saw that George had been watching the action, too, but Bess was deep in conversation with Josh.
The dejected CARING goalie picked up the ball and tossed it in the direction of the referee. It fell short, landing at the feet of another CARING player, a girl with long dark hair.
Her face set in anger, the dark-haired girl gave the ball a hard sideways kick. It came cannoning toward the sideline — right where Bess and Josh were standing.