For the last six months, Michelle has been living at Shelter First, an old downtown L.A. hotel that once housed skid row transients. The 11-year-old shares a one-bedroom unit with her single mother and three younger sisters at the 296-room hotel, which now provides homeless families with emergency and transitional housing. The facility may have changed, but not the neighborhood.
"She is surrounded by concrete and people who are transients. There is no vision of a different world," said Charlene Gowers, the executive director of Shelter First Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides long-term transitional housing for the homeless. "To send her somewhere where she can see trees and space and sky and have counselors there to work toward goals with is magnificent, especially when the risk is right outside the door. She doesn't even have to take five steps."
Michelle, who requested that her name be changed for this story, will be part of the first group of children from the shelter to ever attend summer camp. A $5,000 grant from the Los Angeles Times summer camp campaign will cover the expenses for 33 children at Circle V Ranch Camp in Santa Barbara. Most are excited about going away for a week in August, but "they are a little scared because they are from unstable backgrounds," said Gowers. "So anything out of the day-to-day schedule is scary."
She is counting on Michelle to be a leader. Michelle is "really spunky, a live wire," but she wasn't always so outgoing, said Gowers.
Her mother's drug-addiction problems resulted in the family losing its South-Central Los Angeles home a year and a half ago. The four girls and their mother, who is now drug-free, moved to a mission in downtown Los Angeles, where they had to wake up every morning before 6 and pack up their things. They would wait at a park or walk around until 4 p.m., when they were allowed back in for the night. Michelle began to miss school, and because Michelle is the oldest, her mother "depended on her to be responsible for her siblings," said Gower.
The children arrived at the six-story Shelter First angry. Michelle gradually warmed up to the attention of the staff and used the facility's learning center and play area. She began to "open up and regain trust," said Gower.
"She was probably happy and outgoing before she was homeless," she added. "She became introverted and beaten down, but now she has bounced back. Camp is her reward. She has managed to get through a lot in her life."
Every year since 1954, readers and employees of The Times have sent thousands of needy children to summer camp. This year more than 11,000 children will experience a special summer, thanks to the $1.6 million raised last year.
The average cost of sending a child to camp for a week is $150. This year, the McCormick Tribune Foundation will match the first $1.2 million in contributions at 50 cents on the dollar.
Checks should be sent to: L.A. Times Summer Camp Campaign, File No. 56984, Los Angeles, CA 90074-6984. For more information, call (213) 237-5771. To make credit-card donations, visit www. latimes.com/summercamp. Do not send cash.
All donations are tax deductible. Unless donors request otherwise, gifts of $25 or more are acknowledged in The Times. The summer camp campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation.