[Blog] The First LA Times Article, 2 Years Ago

Today marks the second anniversary of my first article in the Los Angeles Times — a piece in Calendar about Esai Morales, a boy who would benefit from the paper’s summer charity program of sending disadvantaged kids in L.A. to summer camps. It was a memorable first story. When I arrived at a pleasant Compton home to interview Esai, his entire family piled into the living room, all at once — mother, father, sister, brother, cousin. And then another surprise: Esai could barely speak or hear, and stiff braces encased his lanky limbs to help him walk. He was visibly anxious to boot. Me too. I was more than a little overwhelmed.

After greeting the siblings and cousin, all under 10 years old, I did my best to ignore their fidgety bodies lined up on the couch. I tried to ask Esai easy questions. “What are you looking forward to about summer camp?” It was impossible. I turned to the parents. They explained Esai’s many medical conditions. Their worries about his difficulty walking. New test results were due soon, but what would they show? How could they best care for him? Esai sat next to them, silent.Then we discussed the camp Esai would attend, intended to help blind youth. They were brimming with optimism and determination that Esai would enjoy himself, learn new skills, and become more independent. Esai appeared to agree.Then it was time to go. How could I express my thanks — and admiration — to Esai, if he could hardly hear? Before turning to leave I grasped his hand, and gave it a squeeze.

Thus, I embarked on an assignment that would lead me to write more than 20 such stories, all with their own challenges. About the girl who was born in prison. The boy who moved in with a friend after his mom died. Kids with autism and kidney disease. The teenager who desperately hoped for a chance at UCLA. The man who had turned his gang-banging life around. The family who had arrived in L.A. speaking only Nahuatl. The little boy building a home in the sandbox at the homeless service center. Or the young man whose mother was in drug rehab. I pleaded, begged him to answer my questions in more than a single word. I can still remember each face, each name, each story.

Everyone I talked with extolled the benefits of summer camp. The chance to learn new skills, lose one’s worries, make friends, have fun, become independent, prep for school. I became convinced that the Times Summer Camp Campaign was a worthy cause. I only wondered what would happen when the summer camps would come to an end.

Read my article about Esai below.

Summer Camp Campaign: Vision- and hearing-impaired Esai counts down the days to Camp Bloomfield

In addition to the usual swimming, hiking and horseback riding, the Compton 13-year-old plans to conquer the climbing wall.

By Daina Beth Solomon, Los Angeles Times

Hindered by a speech impediment, Esai Mora struggles to be understood. But there’s one word that he takes extra care to pronounce: “independent.”

Independence may be the most important aspect of his experience at Camp Bloomfield, a program run by Junior Blind of America for vision-impaired or multi-disabled youth and their families.

When asked to tell the date camp starts, Esai responds without hesitation: “June 22nd.”

The 13-year-old is eager to return to Camp Bloomfield, located in Malibu’s Santa Monica Mountains 50 miles from his Compton home. Esai enjoys challenges, and this year aims to master the climbing wall in addition to revisiting activities from last year’s camp, such as swimming, hiking and horseback riding.

These typical camp activities might be second nature to other boys, but Esai’s multiple medical conditions make physical endeavors challenging. Since age 7, his vision has been gravely impaired from optic nerve atrophy; some days he can’t see at all. He also contends with severe hearing loss that doctors have treated by implanting an electronic device in his left ear and by wearing a hearing aid in the right. Yet another challenge is leg weakness caused by a neurological disorder, for which he wears braces around his ankles and calves.

His parents, Esmeralda and Juan Mora, began attending Camp Bloomfield’s family sessions four years ago. Last year, Esai attended camp alone, a major accomplishment. As Frank Cardenas, director of recreation for Junior Blind of America, puts it, “Going to camp is a big leap. It’s a big win-win just showing up on the first day.”

This year, Esai will attend three camp sessions. His sisters, ages 8 and 11, will participate, acting as buddies for those who can’t see. More than 1,000 campers will visit Camp Bloomfield this summer.

Camille Wheatley, communications manager for Junior Blind of America, says, “Each year is always something new. Camp is a huge boost to their confidence and they want to continue to build on that.”

Esmeralda says Esai’s independence grows by assisting others and sharing his experiences. She says, “There’s strength in one another.”

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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