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A natural leader and a born problem-solver

Times Staff Writer

For years, Blanca Cervantes refused to let her daughter, Vanessa, go to the Boys & Girls Club in Huntington Beach after school, even when the youngster begged and pleaded with her. Cervantes said no, she says now, because she thought her low-income family would have to pay for Vanessa’s attendance.

But when Cervantes and her husband agreed in January 2005 to take custody of the three children of her sister, who had substance abuse and mental health problems, a social worker told her that all the kids could go to the club for free.

In short order, 12-year-old Vanessa made up for the missed time. She goes to the club almost every day, plays sports and eagerly helps the staff with younger children. She likes to read to the kindergartners and assist kids in the art room.

“I just like helping little ones. It feels like I’m a teacher,” Vanessa says.

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One day last year, Vanessa noticed a plaque on the wall that said “Youth of the Year,” accompanied by a picture of young staffer Jose Gonzalez, who had been hired at the club after being a member. Vanessa asked Gonzalez how he got the accolade, which is awarded to members who serve as positive role models to other children. With his guidance, she’s tried to “be helpful and be kind to kids and just try to respect others,” Vanessa says. This spring, Vanessa was stunned when she received the award herself. Now a framed certificate hangs over her bed. Nearby is a poster with pictures of Vanessa helping other kids at the club. Below that is a stack of Nancy Drew books.

“She’s a busy bee,” says Blanca Cervantes. “She’s very helpful. She’s always trying to solve everybody’s problems.”

Vanessa agrees that she tries to be a little Ms. Fix-It. “If somebody was mad at you, I’m going to figure out who’s mad at you, why they’re mad at you. You know how a teacher tells you to find a solution? Well, I try to use my schoolwork to solve problems.”

In August, Vanessa’s leadership skills will be on display when she attends summer camp at Pathfinder Ranch in the San Bernardino Mountains. Last year, she went to the YMCA’s Camp Edwards, where she liked rock climbing, despite being afraid of rappelling. She didn’t get to try archery, and that’s one of her main goals for this year. Most important, though, Vanessa says she wants to make new friends.

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About 10,000 underprivileged children will go to camp this summer, thanks to $1.6 million raised last year.

The annual fundraising campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, which this year will match the first $1.1 million in contributions at 50 cents on the dollar.

Donations are tax-deductible. For more information, call (213) 237-5771. To make donations by credit card, go to latimes.com/summercamp.

To send checks, use the attached coupon. Do not send cash.

Unless requested otherwise, gifts of $50 or more will be acknowledged in The Times.


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