Each summer when Roberto returns from Camp Laurel, he sports a huge smile. This July, he also came back with a wooden oar and a Polaroid photograph of two impishly grinning 9-year-olds.
It isn't just any oar or picture. The oar is an Apollo Award, presented to the camper who exemplified qualities of a great role model, and the photo is of two boys, Max and Rubio, whom he looked after for a day during an overnight hiking trip to a lake.
The camp counselors took notice of his leadership skills and kindness, and voted for Roberto to receive the Apollo Award. Their signatures scrawled on the oar included brief but enthusiastic messages such as "I'm so proud of you!" and "You've really grown into a fine man."
This was the Van Nuys resident's fifth year at Camp Laurel, a week-long outing offered by the Laurel Foundation, a nonprofit serving children, youths and families affected by HIV and AIDS. Roberto's mother, Elizabeth (who asked that her last name not be used), has been living with AIDS for 22 years and is in and out of the hospital. An older brother (whom he never knew) died from AIDS at age 4.
The warm and friendly 15-year-old Roberto is a "big change" from the 10-year-old Roberto who first begged his mother not to send him to camp, Elizabeth said. She showed the file where she collected all of Roberto's previous summer camp pictures, in which "the first picture, he looked so serious. But all the other pictures, he can smile more now."
Roberto's expression turned solemn when the conversation turned to his mother's health, but he said that her illness has pushed him to seek a positive outlook in any situation or problem.
"Honestly, I don't think about it," Roberto said. "I don't let it interrupt my daily activities.... but there is nothing I can do about it and I've got to deal with it somehow. Instead of being sad about it, I'd rather be positive and think about what I can do … like helping others."
Even more so than the archery, swimming and rope-climbing, Roberto said taking care of Max and Rubio was his favorite activity at camp this year. In fact, he plans to do that again next summer as a counselor-in-training (CIT).
"I see the way all the campers look up to the CITs, and I like the image that [the CITs] have at the camp," Roberto said. "I remember when I was younger, I would also look up to these CITs and I want to be that to the other younger kids too."
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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