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Siblings need a place to stretch out

Crowded into a small apartment most of the year, the Gonzalez children look forward to summer adventures in the outdoors.

June 13, 2003|Shane Nelson | Times Staff Writer

The one-bedroom apartment in Huntington Park where the four Gonzalez children live is cramped, to say the least. Alexis, 12, twins Kenny and Brittany, 11, and Amy, 8, have taken over the only bedroom with their bunk beds and dressers, so their mom, Veronica Mendez, sleeps on a futon in the living room.

Although Mendez, 35, has lived in the predominantly Latino area all her life and knows her neighbors by their first names, she would like to move into a larger place in a safer part of the neighborhood. Earlier this year, a 14-year-old girl who lived upstairs and was a friend of her daughter died of a self-inflected gunshot wound. Another friend died sniffing air freshener to get high.

But for now, the small apartment is all the single mom, who works two part-time jobs at Middleton Elementary School, can afford. Because she is on a tight budget, it's hard for her to scrape up the $35-per-child fee to send all four to Stanley Ranch Camp in Castaic.

Alexis and the twins will enjoy camp a third time while Amy will be returning for a second summer thanks, in part, to the Los Angeles Times Summer Camp Fund. They look forward to meeting people of different cultures and ethnicities, spending time outdoors instead of in front of the television and trying new things -- Kenny overcame his fear of heights by hiking to the top of a mountain last year.

"It was nice, the view," he said. "We saw some of Six Flags [Magic Mountain], the roller coasters and the tops of houses."

The family's enthusiasm for camp helps alleviate neighborhood parents' fears of allowing their kids to leave home for a week. The parents trust Mendez, who coordinates the Woodcraft Rangers tutoring and enrichment program at Middleton.

"A lot of our Hispanic families are apprehensive about sending their kids to camp, because it's not part of their culture," said Cathie Mostovoy, chief executive officer of Woodcraft Rangers, which owns and operates the Stanley Ranch Camp. "So when someone like Veronica sends her kids ... it relaxes them a bit."

Camp is part of the busy schedule Mendez arranges to keep the kids occupied and supervised. (They spend every other weekend with their dad.)

Nearly half of the counselors come from abroad, mostly England, Australia and Sweden, which adds an international flair to their adventures. Amy fondly recalled a Russian counselor nicknamed "Toothpick." "I remember when we were going to sleep, she would sing us Russia songs," she said.

This year, about 11,000 children will experience a special 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 as permitted by law. For more information, call (213) 237-5771. To make credit card donations, go to 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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