Isaac Araujo is the kind of young man who talks warmly to anyone and everyone, from the teachers in his school to the homeless people on the streets.
But three years ago, the tall 15-year-old with impressive eyebrows and confident voice was a nervous, scared boy who couldn't keep down his breakfast before school and refused to sit between strangers at the pew during Mass.
Isaac, who grew up in Highland Park, was bullied in middle school. His antagonists didn't hurt him physically, but the constant threats left damage: Isaac was plagued by a chronic fear that someone was out there to hurt him.
His mother, Maria Araujo, worried about her son, so when she heard about R.M. Pyles Boys Camp, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing good character traits in boys through a wilderness camping experience, she urged him to attend. It took some cajoling, but her efforts paid off. Isaac returned a stronger, more confident young man, Araujo said.
"He's very different now," Araujo said. "He's not afraid to go to school. He makes friends easily with people. He wants to be a counselor at the camp because he wants to help a lot of people."
Isaac said one of his biggest influences at camp was the counselors, who patiently listened to his problems and encouraged him to take charge of his own identity.
"They said you have to believe in yourself and not stay in a little box," Isaac said. "They said I have the inner strength to get out of the box and say, 'You can't pick on me, I won't let you hurt me.' If you want to be this shy person who is weak mentally and socially, people would think and treat you like you're that kind of guy."
Pyles Camp also provided plenty of challenges that forced Isaac to prove his strength to himself, including a high ropes course in which he had to climb up a long pole to ring a bell at the top. That was difficult because of his fear of heights.
But remembering what his counselors told him about "the little box," he persisted in spite of his fear. When he reached the top, Isaac said, the sound of the bell was like the jingle of his personal achievement.
This summer will be his third year attending Pyles Camp, and Isaac is eager for it. Eventually, he said, he wants to become a leader in his community who can effectively tackle gang-related problems, make the neighborhood a "better place" and be "a guide who can lead people to achievement and success."
Through the generosity of Times readers, along with a match by the McCormick Foundation, more than $1.6 million was granted last year by the Los Angeles Times Summer Camp Campaign.
The Summer Camp Campaign, part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a McCormick Foundation Fund, supports programs that provide thousands of Southern California's at-risk children ages 7 to 17 with enriching, educational and fun camp experiences.
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