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Reggie, 11, cheerfully cares for his mother

Cooking and cleaning are among the boy's chores. This summer, he'll spend a week in the Santa Monica Mountains.

June 03, 2003|Shane Nelson | Times Staff Writer

At first, 11-year-old Reginald Nelson Jr. seems like an all-American fifth-grader. He plays basketball and videogames as much as possible, idolizes the Lakers -- especially Kobe Bryant and former player Magic Johnson, has lots of friends and thinks school is "all right."

But with his father out of the picture since he was an infant, the 5-foot, 140-pound boy, who goes by Reggie, has the grown-up responsibility of helping to care for his seriously ill mother.

"He wants to be a child and be spoiled by adults, but without dad, he has to be the man of the house and be strong for his mom," said Jorge Ramirez, assistant activities coordinator of the Salvation Army after-school program Reggie attends. Since the two moved out of his grandparents' Compton house in January, his responsibilities have increased.

To give Reggie a break, the Salvation Army is sending him and nine of his after-school pals to Camp Gilmore in the Santa Monica Mountains, with help from the Los Angeles Times Summer Camp fund.

The week of hiking, swimming and campfire ghost stories is well-deserved, Ramirez said.

Reggie's mom, Gwendolyn Jackson, has come to appreciate her son's help. Jackson, 40, said the pills she has to take for her illness give her bad headaches and exhaust her to the extent that she can't work.

When she asks him to, he'll clean their bedroom and bathroom, do the dishes and take out the trash. Sometimes he'll even cook for her. His favorite meal to make includes an omelet with cheese, meat, peppers and garlic; Pop-Tarts; and orange juice.

"I like to make sure she's full," he said smiling ear-to-ear.

The pair share a bright one-bedroom apartment in Los Feliz, rented from the Salvation Army. A short stack of CDs, an ironing board, family portraits and a pile of Reggie-sized tennis shoes dot the sparsely furnished living room.

Reggie's best attribute is his attitude in the classroom and on the playground, Ramirez said. He never puts up a fight when it's time to do homework, and others want him on their team because of his sportsmanship. "I thought other kids would benefit from him as much as he would benefit from the camp experience," Ramirez said.

However, the aspiring professional basketball player isn't always all smiles. Anger held inside for his father surfaces in a sampling of drawings and the rap lyrics he writes.

Reggie's week at camp will be his first time in the great outdoors. He will be one of the 11,000 children enjoying camp this summer thanks to the $1.4 million donated last year by Times readers and employees.

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 as permitted by law. For more information, call (213) 237-5771. To send checks, use the attached coupon. For credit card donations, visit summercamp. Please, do not send cash.

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

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