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TIMES CAMP FUND

Nature's cure for shyness

Axl Ochoa spent most summers indoors. His mountain experiences have won him friends and new confidence.

August 05, 2003|Shane Nelson | Times Staff Writer

When Axl Ochoa heard that his mom wanted to send him to camp last year, his heart skipped a beat. He knew he had been acting up a little, but the 9-year-old didn't think that his mischievous behavior warranted such an extreme action.

"I thought it was like summer school -- for bad kids," Axl said.

His mother, Catalina Salazar, tried to assure her hijo, Spanish for son, that he was wrong -- that camp was not a punishment. Camp, she told him, was a fun place where he'd be able to play with kids his own age.

She hoped camp would foster independence in her shy only child. The single mother and son were then living in a one-bedroom apartment near downtown Los Angeles. Though he had spent nearly every weekend at his father's apartment since his parents separated five years earlier, she was concerned he was too attached to her. If she told her son that he was to spend more than his usual one night at his dad's, he would whine and protest, "No, I will miss you, I want to be with you," she said.

"He kept asking me if I would really pick him up" from camp, said his mother, who assured him she would -- he just had to call.

But he never made that call. After two days at Camp Mt. Crags in the Santa Monica Mountains, Axl was hooked. When he returned home, Salazar was so impressed with the change in her son's attitude that she signed him up for another week 10 days later. This June, the fourth-grader returned to camp, with help from the Los Angeles Times Summer Camp Fund.

She said Axl no longer complains about the occasional extra night at his dad's house. And when she dropped him off at the camp bus this summer, he excitedly introduced her to his returning camp friends.

Salazar attributed the change to the outdoor activities at camp. At his parents' homes, there isn't much room to play outside, so Axl spends most of his free time indoors playing board games or watching movies. His dad, Rodrigo Ochoa, agreed, adding that the team sports at camp had the biggest effect on his son.

Having enjoyed the sports activities at last year's camp, Axl tried a sports-themed one this summer. He chose to specialize in cross-country running, so on the last day he ran in a mini-marathon across the camp. Although he didn't place, Axl was content to finish, proudly talking about the medal he earned.

"He likes the outdoors. It's a marvel for him," his mother said. "I think he enjoys this camping so much, he would go three or four times a year."

About 11,000 children will go to camp this summer, thanks to the $1.4 million raised last year.

The annual fund-raising campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, which this year will match the first $1 million in contributions at 50 cents on the dollar.

Donations are tax-deductible. For more information, call (213) 237-5771. To make credit card donations, visit www.latimes.com/summer

camp. To send checks, use the attached coupon. Do not send cash.

Unless requested otherwise, gifts of $25 or more are acknowledged in The Times.

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