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SUMMER CAMP CAMPAIGN

Boy who's known sad times finds bluer skies at getaway

The facility operated by the L.A. County Education Foundation helps effect 'massive changes' in young Justin.

August 22, 2011|Sophia Lee

Annette Karlsson smiles proudly as she boasts about the athletic prowess of her 11-year-old son, Justin (he dashes tirelessly among his school's track, baseball, basketball, football and soccer practices). But tears well up when she talks about his history.

"Justin's had it hard," Karlsson said. "He's come such a long way. He's had to overcome so much. He and his sister had to battle the abuse and abandonment. It's emotional, you know; the kids went through hell."

Justin and his 9-year-old sister, Briauna, were separated from their mother after a divorce six years ago. Karlsson was struggling with drug addiction at the time and had limited contact with her children. It wasn't until she turned her life around four years later, she said, that she discovered they'd been physically abused.

Karlsson went to court and fought for custody. When the children finally came under her care, she found them scared, angry and antisocial, yet unable to express their pain. The telltale sign of Justin's silent agitation was his hands, which he would crumple into tightly clenched fists.

"Justin was a 'stuffer,' " Karlsson said. "He would just stuff his feelings inside himself."

When Karlsson heard of a summer camp opportunity at Blue Sky Meadow, operated by the Los Angeles County Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization with an emphasis on education improvement for underserved and disabled children in L.A. County, she signed Justin up in hopes of keeping him busy and letting him be a kid again.

It worked. Karlsson said that since his trip to camp two years ago, she has seen "massive changes" in Justin.

"He has such life in him now," Karlsson said. "He interacts with the other kids, he talks to me more. He wasn't very affectionate, but now he's opened up a lot."

Justin said his favorite memories of camp are making friends and playing dodgeball tag with them. But he's also gained the social skills to re-create a similar gang of sports-loving friends within his school and neighborhood.

"I'm going to go out and play tag with my friends today," he said.

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.

Donations are tax-deductible as permitted by law and matched at 50 cents on the dollar. Donor information is not traded or published without permission. Donate online at latimes.com/donate or by calling (800) 518-3975. All gifts will receive a written acknowledgment.

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