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TIMES CAMP FUND

Girl blossoms as her mom fights addiction

She finds a sense of security and 'really nice' people. For the first time, she'll spend a week at summer camp.

June 28, 2004|Michael Ordona | Times Staff Writer

Michelle marches in the room, tosses her pack aside and firmly shakes hands. Only when she collapses her skinny frame into a chair and speaks in a little girl's voice does she seem 9 years old.

Swimming is her favorite thing to do, but there's no pool at the Salvation Army's Transitional Living Center in Whittier, where she lives with her mother and three younger sisters in a single room.

"I had a dream they had a pool," the precocious girl says enthusiastically. "They had a secret door in the laundry room."

"I feel comfortable being with all my family, but once in a while they do get on my nerves. It's true, I'm not going to lie," she says with a smile. Then her intelligent eyes narrow. "They mock me."

The close-knit family's journey here has been difficult. Michelle's mother, Gloria, says, "I was into drugs and alcohol. I stayed in a relationship where I was being abused physically, verbally and emotionally."

While Gloria went through two rehab stints totaling 14 months, the kids lived first with one set of grandparents, then with the other.

After Michelle's father got out of prison last year for substance abuse, Gloria found that he was still using, prompting their estrangement.

Although the separation has been hard, things are getting better for the clan. With the help of the center, Gloria has been studying to become a medical biller. And she has been sober for more than two years.

Michelle admits that while her mother was "in facilities," the girl developed a bad disposition. Now, living in a secure building with cameras and strict rules, she says she was "amazed by all the people who were really nice to me. It just changed my attitude over time."

"Michelle is such a pleasant child," says Cindy Lopez, the center's site supervisor of children's programs. "She's blooming."

Michelle will be going to camp for the first time this year courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Summer Camp Campaign.

"Sometimes you have children who have never even visited the beach," Lopez says. "They may never be able to go again, but at least they've experienced it one time."

Lopez says that there will be the usual assortment of activities at the camp, including hiking, arts and crafts, and campfires. And yes, Michelle, there will be swimming.

About 11,000 children will go to camp this summer thanks to the $1.6 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 $1.1 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 la times.com/summercamp.

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

Unless requested otherwise, gifts of $50 or more will be acknowledged in The Times.

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