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SUMMER CAMP CAMPAIGN

Despite difficulties, the upbeat goes on and on

Viviana Espinosa's physical problems stunted her growth, but her optimism continued to blossom.

July 09, 2009|Juliette Funes

Viviana Espinosa was born optimistic, her dad, Joe, and grandmother, Sally Rios, say. Sharing a home in Pasadena, the three form a cohesive family unit filled with cheerfulness and openness, giving the 16-year-old a positive nature that hasn't faltered even in the face of adversity.

Known as Vivi, the teen has embraced a family of friends and nurtured her personal growth at the South Pasadena San Marino YMCA branch of the YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles. She has been attending the organization's Camp Whittle in Big Bear the last five summers and will return this month with about 145 kids ages 8 to 15.

Viviana will be a counselor in training to "hang out with the kids and instill my optimism in them and help them," she said, adding that her unique experiences haven't deterred her from being upbeat.

Born with Turner syndrome, a chromosomal abnormality that stunted her stature and left her with other physical handicaps, Viviana's life hasn't been easy. She was abandoned by her birth mother when she was 15 months old. Sally took the place of mom and helped raise Viviana.

Trying to provide her with stability, Sally and Joe encouraged Viviana to engage in numerous activities.

"I wanted her to be around normal kids," Sally says. "I wanted her to fit into normal society."

Still, Viviana looked physically different, and for much of her elementary school years, was bullied and sometimes threatened with physical violence.

"Eventually it clicked into me that I can't pay attention to that stuff," Viviana says.

She has since had surgeries removing extra folds of skin on her neck, and takes growth hormones. She now stands at 4 feet 9 inches.

However, she hasn't let her medical disorder inhibit her. "If Vivi has a weakness it's that she's too happy," Joe says.

The camp, though, has "helped her get through the little lumps and hurdles in life," Sally says.

The experience empowers campers and encourages self-dependence, adds Sue Marasco, the executive director of the South Pasadena San Marino YMCA.

"Every child needs some influence beyond their parents," she says. "They have to work through and figure out . . . what's going on in the camp at the time and that's where they're growing immensely."

With $1.8 million raised last year by the Los Angeles Times Summer Camp Campaign, approximately 8,000 children will go to camp in Southern California this summer.

The Summer Camp Campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a McCormick Foundation fund, which matches all donations at 50 cents on the dollar.

Donations are tax-deductible as permitted by law. Addresses will not be released or published.

For more information, call (800) LA TIMES, Ext. 75771, or e-mail familyfund@latimes.com.

Mail donations using the attached form (do not send cash), donate by phone at (800) 518-3975 or donate online now at latimes.com/donate.

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juliette.funes@latimes.com

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