Mario will be 8 this month. Since he was 5 months old, he's lived with his grandmother, her roommate, his older brother and two older sisters in a small house in the Long Beach area. His mother lives nearby -- in her car, which she parks on the street where the children live.
"She's parked out there now," said Mario's grandmother, who asked that neither her name nor Mario's last name be used, in a recent phone interview. "The children see her there all the time. They know she's a hooker and a heroin addict."
The grandmother says that Mario's mother takes clients right there in her car.
"I call the police, who can't do much about it. She keeps coming back."
Mario asks his grandmother all the time why his mother is like she is. "He tells me he hates her. I don't know what to tell him. Those are his feelings, and I understand why he has them."
Yet Mario has grown into a sunny, loving child, his grandmother says. "His teachers say he's wonderful, warm and caring. One teacher told me he's the kindest child she's ever had in any class."
He does well in academics too, she adds. "He loves books and reads a year above his grade level."
The grandmother is understandably proud of this child, whose father is in an Arizona jail for illegally entering the United States. "It's a pity, because he might be a good father," she says.
Mario has never slept away from home, not even for a night, his grandmother says. "He keeps asking me why nobody ever invites him anywhere." But he has a great sense of adventure, she says. "He's definitely a people person who loves to interact with others, loves sports, loves nature -- and hardly gets any of that in his life."
There is little money for trips or toys, she says. In addition to the emotional burdens her grandson bears, he suffers from asthma that at times is severe.
This summer, Mario will go to a camp sponsored by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America in the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu.
He will sleep in a cabin, swim, hike, and create arts and crafts. He will be surrounded by kids his own age, who also have asthma. His grandmother says he can't wait.
About 11,000 children will go to camp this summer thanks to the $1.6 million raised last year.
The annual fundraising campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, which this year will match the first $1.1 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/summercamp.
To send checks, use the attached coupon. Do not send cash.
Unless it is requested otherwise, gifts of $50 or more will be acknowledged in The Times.