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Donations give needy children time in the sun

Program starts its 49th year with plenty of kids who could use a week of fun and friendships.

May 26, 2003|Gayle Pollard-Terry | Times Staff Writer

Shortly after Josselin Sorto arrived in Los Angeles from Honduras, she took the first bus ride of her life. The scared 9-year-old girl spoke to no one, even when addressed in Spanish, during the long trip to a YMCA camp in Big Bear. She simply withdrew.

At night sitting around the campfire, she cried as the other children sang "Kumbaya." She kept thinking about her grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle and "Tito," the black pony she left behind to join a stranger -- her mother, who left her before she could walk.

Then Josselin saw horses at Camp Whittle.

"Ooh, I was so happy," she recalled, "because when I came to the U.S., I didn't ride horses" anymore. She jumped on Jupiter, a white-and-brown horse that became her favorite. She swam in the pool. She hiked in the mountains. She ate pizza, spaghetti and tacos.

Josselin was one of the thousands of disadvantaged children helped by the Los Angeles Times Summer Camp Campaign, which launches its 49th year today.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 29, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Camp fund caption -- A caption accompanying an article about the Los Angeles Times Camp Fund in Monday's Calendar misidentified 9-year-old Orlando Hernandez as Orlando Sorto.

When the week ended, she didn't want to go home.

"Josselin opened up at camp," said Maria Elena Venegas, camp director, who also runs a small YMCA program located across the street from the girl's apartment in the Pico-Union area. "When she came from camp she had more trust in herself " and others.

"Summer camp is more than a vacation for children," said psychologist Bruce Muchnick, a national expert on summer camp, in a telephone interview from Glenside, Pa., repeating his advice that appears on the American Camping Assn. Web site. "At camp, kids learn to appreciate the outdoors, develop companionship and pick up skills that enhance self-reliance, cooperation and interdependence. These skills will remain with them into adulthood."

This summer, approximately 11,000 low-income children, selected by 69 nonprofit organizations, will go to camp thanks to $1.4 million raised by The Times summer camp fund last year.

Josselin was selected by Venegas, site director of the Ketchum Westlake YMCA, a satellite of the downtown Y. The smaller facility serves the impoverished and congested Pico-Union area, a few miles west of the civic center.

"She was very special, very shy. She had a very difficult childhood," Venegas said, as tears welled in her eyes. Josselin joined her mother for the first time since she was 9 months old, and she also didn't know her stepfather, younger brother and sister.

"When she came here, she didn't talk," Josselin's teary-eyed mother, Melida Hernandez, said in Spanish through an interpreter. "She wouldn't ask for anything that she needed. She wouldn't say if she was thirsty. She wouldn't say if she was hungry."

"Her brother, Orlando, couldn't understand this was his new sister," their mother added during a recent interview. "He knew she existed, but it was hard to accept." Accustomed to being the firstborn in the family, he needed to learn to share.

Josselin needed to learn to trust.

Their mother sought help from Venegas. A week after Josselin arrived, she joined her brother in the Westlake Y's summer program. Two weeks later, she headed to camp.

"I was scared," she said demonstrating how she wrung her hands over and over. "I was looking around. When I got out of the bus, I saw all the little houses [cabins]. I was thinking of my house in Honduras. When I saw the cows, I thought about my little cow in Honduras."

At camp, she lived in the Princess cabin. Her cabin mates nicknamed her "Princess Barbie" because every night she looked in the mirror her mother sent with her and brushed her hair. Although she couldn't speak English then, she made new friends, Jennifer and Vanessa. They celebrated when their cabin, judged the neatest that day, won them the right to put their names on the Spirit Stick, a long, hand-decorated stick coveted by the youngsters.

On a recent day, Josselin, now 11, couldn't stop talking about the fun that she and Orlando had at camp. The two are so close now that they speak to each other in English when they don't want their mother to know what they are talking about. (She, like most mothers, understands more than they realize.)

In August, they will return to Camp Whittle for the third time. They qualify because the family of five doesn't have much money.

"My Dad fell off a ladder. He fell 15 feet," Orlando said, explaining that his father used to prepare walls for painting. After two surgeries since the October accident, he remains on disability; his wife doesn't work although she has looked for a job. She also volunteers on the Y's fund-raising campaign.

"We need your help, whatever your heart says you can give," she said, repeating her pitch: "No amount is too small."

Each family, including Josselin's, pays something for camp, which costs $265 a week per child; The Times fund contributes $150 per camper.

Since 1954, The Times has raised more than $26 million, and helped to send nearly 370,000 underprivileged children to camp from the five counties of Southern California. This year, the McCormick Tribune Foundation 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, visit mp. To send checks, use the attached coupon.

Do not send cash.

Unless requested 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.

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