Vivian Nungaray saunters down the hallway during the after-school program "Heart of Los Angeles," entirely at ease. Carrying her Slurpee like a fashion accessory, the 12-year-old could model for a tween-style magazine. Her black patent leather high-tops, cutoff jeans and zip-up hoodie make for a sporty urban look. A perfectly broken-in backpack finishes the ensemble.
But when Vivian changes her outfit, she won't shrug off the feeling of belonging. The youth program known as HOLA, pronounced like the Spanish word for "hello," has become Vivian's second home over the last six years.
Her first home is the apartment she shares with her great-aunt, Leandra Gonzalez. Vivian's parents have been in and out of prison for most of her life, and she doesn't communicate with them, Gonzalez says. She thinks they might be in Mexico now. Closer to home is HOLA, just a few blocks away in a classic art-deco apartment building by Lafayette Park on the border of Koreatown.
HOLA clearly makes a difference in Vivian's life. She says the staff "helps to motivate me" by providing homework help, tutoring and encouragement. And thanks to HOLA, Vivian has had the chance to attend Camp Harmony, the overnight, Malibu-based program that serves children from temporary or low-income housing.
Last year, Vivian attended camp twice, for both the summer and winter sessions. It was her first experience away from home by herself, but Gonzalez knew she'd be fine. According to her, "Vivian is very independent. She has no fear."
One bonus of Camp Harmony is the opportunity to interact with nature, says Wendy Klappholz, executive director of Camp Harmony's umbrella organization, United in Harmony. She says that camp is "a chance for the kids to get out of the city, off the cement, and experience dirt, water, leaves and nature." Vivian especially looks forward to a day at the beach when she returns to Camp Harmony this summer.
HOLA staff members praise Camp Harmony and are thrilled that Vivian has the chance to spend another week outdoors this summer. In supporting Vivian's personal and academic growth over the last six years, they have become invested in her future. They will provide their full support so she can realize her dream of attending UCLA.
In the meantime, another week at Camp Harmony will help Vivian to build the confidence and skills that she will need to excel in college. As Darlene Rivera, an HOLA program director says, "The experiences they receive up at camp are amazing. Kids come back and talk about it for months and months and months."
With $1.6 million raised last year by the Los Angeles Times Summer Camp Campaign, about 6,500 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.
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