Lourdes Mack giggles as she clambers onto her mom’s lap to look at photos from last summer’s Painted Turtle camp. In one, she swings her feet and twirls in her wheelchair. It was “Stage Night,” and Lourdes danced to the song “You’re the One That I Want” from “Grease.” That special occasion was one of the few times in her life that Lourdes did not wear her leg braces.
Born with spina bifida, a condition in which the spinal column is not completely developed at birth, Lourdes has grown up with leg paralysis. Braces, wheelchairs and walkers are the 8-year-old’s constant companions. To treat her hydrocephalus, a condition that causes fluid accumulation in the brain, Lourdes has an implanted catheter that drains excess fluid.
Caring for her children and coordinating medical treatments feels like a full-time job to Lourdes’ mother, Nicte. A native of Guatemala, Nicte also has a 12-year-old daughter, Diana, who has been diagnosed with severe asthma and a rare and serious genetic disorder called Cohen syndrome.
But just a two-hour drive from their compact Culver City apartment is the Painted Turtle, a place of “zero worries,” Nicte says. Located at Lake Hughes in the Angeles National Forest, the program offers summer camps themed around a specific medical condition — and at no cost to families. Last year, Lourdes attended the session for children with spina bifida. When Nicte flips through camp photos, Lourdes grins to see images of herself laughing with friends and participating in activities like fishing, boating and horseback riding.
The camp aims to provide a safe and encouraging environment for kids to challenge themselves. According to Nicte, the camp helped build her daughter’s self-esteem. “She came back with a feeling of achievement, of being able to do new things and succeed,” Nicte says.
The Painted Turtle also presents the rare opportunity for children to connect with those who are similarly-disabled. Lourdes recounts how she and another girl even experimented with each other’s walkers.
Painted Turtle makes sure that campers carry home mementos of their experience. In addition to photos, each camper gets a plush turtle. Lourdes squeezes one embellished with red and white patchwork, seeming to focus all her energy into the hug.
“We count down the days that we can visit Painted Turtle again,” Nicte says. “Whoever’s helping us to go is doing miracles.”
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.
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