RIVERVIEW — Brandon Mojica isn't exactly sure why his mom sent him to Camp Cristina when he was a quiet 7-year-old. Twelve years later, though, it doesn't really matter.
The recent Newsome High School graduate is back at a YMCA camp for a third stint, this time as a counselor. Now with responsibilities and kids to look after, Mojica's role certainly has changed, but his circumstances have not. He still has the absence of loved ones on his mind.
Starting with the loss of his 17-year-old sister, who died in a car accident a couple of months before Mojica first attended Riverview's Camp Cristina, he's used camp as an outlet to heal.
"She was like my best friend," Mojica recalled of his sister, Nicole. "It was really hard to lose someone that close and that young."
But camp helped.
It helped him open up. It helped him form friendships that carried on to school. And it helped him forget about the loss of his sister, at least during the day.
"At the beginning it was rough on him," said his father, Benny Mojica. "He was holding it all in, and then he started going to camp. It kept him occupied."
About five years later, Brandon faced another loss. This time it was his grandma, to whom he had grown close after his sister died. So he went back to camp. He enrolled at the Campo Family YMCA day camp in Valrico.
Again, it helped him get through the death and face the adversity.
More recently, Brandon lost his mother. She died in 2006 after a battle with lung cancer. Past the age of a camper, Brandon, now 19, returned to Camp Cristina this summer to work as a counselor. He credits the YMCA camps with helping him grow up.
"It helped me become a man," said Brandon, who runs the camp's new paintball course. "You mature way faster when you lose someone, and you take things a lot more seriously. I just wanted to come back and help the kids out."
In his first summer as a counselor, Brandon has already influenced campers with his high energy and shared passion for paintball, said program director Darren Dannelly.
"I see him come to life when he is here," he said. "I see the kids come to life. He has a lot to give, and it's amazing, because of his story, how much he wants to keep giving."
Austin Keske, an 11-year-old who has spent the past few summers at Camp Cristina, said Brandon is like a big brother.
"When I'm around him, I kind of feel like I can tell him anything," Keske said. "I can rely on him. I trust him a lot."
Brandon spends his time much differently on the campgrounds than he did while growing up. Now known as "Mr. Brandon" or "The Paintball Guy," he maintains the equipment, plays with the campers and swims with them before they go home.
He admits being a counselor isn't easy, but he likes to think he makes a difference in the campers' lives. Brandon will attend Hillsborough Community College in the fall, and if his class schedule permits, he plans to work at the camp's after-school program.
"Seeing that I can help someone just makes my day even better," he said. "It makes me remember my mom, because she was always a loving and giving person, and I just want to do good by her."
Kevin Smetana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2439.