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SUMMER CAMP CAMPAIGN

A lift in the clouds over her absent mother

Though the six-year separation makes Maria sad, a carefree break is on the horizon.

July 14, 2006|Melissa Pamer | Times Staff Writer

Nine-year-old Maria sees her mom for 2 1/2 hours every other Saturday. They sit across from each other at a picnic table, share a meal and sometimes get to play a game. They're allowed to have physical contact when Maria first arrives and again when she leaves. That's two hugs every two weeks.

It's been like this since Maria was 3, when her mom had a nervous breakdown and was placed in a state mental hospital.

"She hasn't been able to spend one birthday with her mom, not one," says Maria's grandmother, Cookie, as she wipes away tears. Cookie takes care of Maria and her two younger siblings. "It's hard on all of us."

Cookie took in the kids while undergoing 10 months of chemotherapy for a liver disease. Before that she had never taken care of all three of them at the same time.

"I wonder now how I did it. You just do what you have to do," Cookie says. "There's no way that I would let my babies go to the state."

Despite almost six years apart, Maria says she still misses her mom and thinks about her a lot. It's sad to see her mom in the hospital, she says. She wishes she could help, especially when her mother talks to herself. Maria's mom was diagnosed first with bipolar disorder and then with schizophrenia, Cookie says.

Despite her painful separation from her mother -- and having to share a one-bedroom apartment with her grandmother, younger brother and sister, two dogs, two birds and a cat -- Maria has a ready, gap-toothed smile.

"She is the most pleasant child I've ever met," says Maria's Girl Scout troop leader, Michelle Lawson. "She'll finish one task and then she's always right there, asking, 'What can I do next?' "

Maria is just as helpful at home, says Cookie. Arthritis, two torn rotator cuffs and an injured hip mean that Cookie sometimes needs assistance around the house. She worries that her immobility prevents her from being a good playmate for Maria and her siblings.

When asked if she gets antsy around the house, Maria smiles shyly and directs her giant hazel eyes at her grandmother. "It's still fun," Maria says.

Maria says she's looking forward to riding horses and swimming at the Girl Scout Council of Orange County's Camp Scherman in the San Jacinto Mountains this summer. She'll go with her younger sister, Alena.

"I think they're going to have a wonderful time," says Cookie. "It's a great opportunity. There's no way they would have gotten to go if it weren't for the camper-ship."

About 10,000 children will go to camp this summer, thanks to $1.6 million raised last year.

The annual fundraising campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family 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 donations by credit card, go to latimes.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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