LA Times

[LA Times] An older sister sets an example for her brothers

August 25, 2010

Attending camps E.L.K. and Coulter Pines in Wrightwood is a family affair for siblings Desirie Banuelos and Ricky Valadez. Run by the Covina-based San Gabriel Valley YMCA, the camps offer participants the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and escape from everyday routine.

Now 17, Desirie has attended the sister camps for the last six years. When she was younger she attended Camp E.L.K., which serves children ages 7 to 13 (its initials honor the name of a YMCA executive). As a teenager, Desirie spent her summers at Camp Coulter Pines, eventually working her way up to a counselor position. Just graduated from high school, Desirie will leave home later this summer to begin her training as a Navy recruit.

Ten-year-old Ricky recently returned home from his third year at Camp E.L.K. Now he looks forward to fifth grade, especially for the chance to play baseball, basketball and soccer with all of his school friends.

Desirie explains her devotion to the YMCA camps by saying, “It’s one week out of the year for kids to be free from stress and get away from the city.”

Desirie, Ricky and their 6-year-old brother Ceasar know all about stress; the family recently went through a period of instability. Their mother, Mona Diaz, declines to discuss the details but notes that the YMCA provided a variety of services that helped the family to persevere.

Camp director Ernie Salcido “is always there for us,” Diaz says. “The kids have so many friends and all the staff members and counselors are so wonderful … it’s like having a second family.”

Meanwhile, camp has helped Desirie and Ricky to develop personal qualities that promise to serve them well. Desirie outgrew her shyness as she began counselor training, allowing her social skills and leadership to emerge.

Ricky has learned about responsibility and taking initiative. He recently surprised his family by auditioning for the role of the Mad Hatter in his school’s production of “Alice in Wonderland.” Ricky explains that camp motivated him to seek new experiences, saying, “I made a goal at camp to be more ‘out there.'” When he’s older, Ricky hopes to become a counselor, just like his sister.

It’s no wonder Ceasar can’t wait to attend Camp E.L.K. next year.

With $1.6 million raised last year by the Los Angeles Times Summer Camp Campaign, approximately 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.

Donations are tax deductible as permitted by law. Addresses will not be released or published. Mail donations using the attached form (do not send cash), donate by phone at (800) 518-3975 or donate online now at

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