A 'Lesson in Humanity' for Stars, Average Folks

Times Staff Writer

Alysa Stevens is 7 years old and she is a foster parent.

Alysa, a humanitarian who's been known to coerce her 3-year-old brother into emptying his piggy bank for starving Ethiopians, earns the $22 a month she pledged to a 6-year-old Filipino girl by doing household chores for her mother and father and for her grandparents, who also are foster parents.

Lifelong Dream

Nancy Wright, 49, is a travel agent in San Jose. She is single and has no children but last year became a foster parent. She chose to sponsor a child in Egypt, "hoping someday I would travel there" in fulfillment of a lifelong dream. She recently returned, bringing back memories of both archeological wonders and her visit with her foster child.

Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows are entertainers, parents and dedicated foster parents to Heba Sayed Ahmed, a 7-year-old Cairo girl, and an Indian girl, Jayashree Yashawante, 13. Foster parents for 31 years, they never ask for a child of a certain age or nationality, figuring, as Meadows said, "Maybe they'll give us somebody nobody wants."

Actress Shirley Jones and husband Marty Ingels have been foster parents for three years. Their child, Kariuki Njiru, an 11-year-old Kenyan, is what Ingels calls the link between Beverly Hills and reality, "a tremendous lesson in humanity for us . . . to realize that there are people living and surviving and even relatively happy who don't know about automobiles, big houses, fancy pets and show business careers."

The bond shared by some average folks and celebrities such as Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews, Frank Sinatra, the Pat Boones, Neil Simon, Tatum O'Neal and the James Stewarts is that each sponsors one or more children in a Third World country through Foster Parents Plan.

Exchange Letters

Allen and Meadows regularly exchange letters with their children in which each tells a little about their everyday lives; the child's big news might be passing a school examination. "We don't tell them things such as, 'I'm starting a new series Tuesday,' " Allen said. "That would be meaningless." To Heba and Jayashree, they are just Mr. and Mrs. Steve Allen, Los Angeles, their foster parents.

Allen, who supports a number of causes and recently returned from Honduras with a group called World Neighbors, said, "The only thing noteworthy about our connection with (Foster Parents) is that we have had the quite rare pleasure of meeting three of our foster children."

In 1958, in Italy, the Allens and two of their three sons visited foster child Roberto, 15, whom Allen had been sponsoring before his marriage to Meadows in 1954. Roberto's father had died in the war and his mother was hospitalized; the child lived in an institution but, for a few days that summer, Rome was his, in the embrace of his American family.

At one time, the Allens sponsored a little Vietnamese boy, Nguyen van Thong, who was brought over to meet Steve Allen when Allen was the subject for a "This Is Your Life" television show. The child later spent some weeks with the Allens. She recalled: "All he wanted to do was watch Western movies. I took him to Beverly Hills to buy a Western outfit, hat, boots--here was this little Vietnamese dressed up like John Wayne."

Meadows said she is still "haunted" by the image of his face, bathed in tears, peering from the window of his departing airplane. He was an orphan who'd been found by French soldiers wandering in the jungle and, she said, "I was the only mother he'd ever known, and Steve was the only father."

Nguyen van Thong and Allen were to meet again, five years later, in Vietnam. But then the years passed and they lost contact. Within the last year a letter of apology arrived at the Allen home from a man who had met Nguyen van Thong in a refugee camp in Thailand. Unfortunately, Allen said, the man was "a damnably forgetful chap" and by the time he remembered to forward to them their former foster child's address it was no longer valid.

So, Allen said, "He's just a question mark."

'A Little Humbling'

In Hong Kong, the Allens visited their foster daughter, Chan Lui; the child's mother had died of tuberculosis and she lived with her father and two brothers in one room of a concrete block apartment complex. "It was a little bit humbling," Meadows said, but knowing they were doing something made her feel "a little less guilty."

Meadows, who was born in China, the daughter of an Episcopalian missionary, said: "I consider what we are doing through Foster Parents Plan like missionary work. It is helping children and I don't think there is anything more important. And, intellectually, I know if we can help it's one less family that's anti-American and one less family that's going to die."

Meadows has a goal--to organize for FPP a budget cruise to the Far East so that American sponsors from all over the United States might have an opportunity to meet their foster children and "they, too, will become missionaries."

Robert and Virginia Gooch of Cheviot Hills have been foster parents for 27 years. They enrolled, he said, because they wanted to "personalize charity" for their own four children, let them understand as they were growing up in comfort "what exists in the world."

Their first foster child was a Sicilian girl who was about the age of the Gooches' twin girls, then 9. Virginia Gooch recalled telling her daughters of the Sicilian family's circumstances--$14 a month family income, no running water; of showing them pictures of this child with stomach distended from malnutrition. Her daughters' only concept of hunger, she said, was "maybe to wait from 5 o'clock to 6 for dinner."

Without a Doll

Still, she said, the reality of poverty didn't really hit them until they learned that the Sicilian child had no doll. "They had a roomful of dolls," said Virginia Gooch. "That, to them, was the big catastrophe."

Once, for a foster child in Indonesia, the Gooches asked to buy a bicycle--"Something we were thinking of as a toy," said Virginia Gooch--but the bike turned out to be the family's sole transportation and eventually, Robert Gooch recalled, "They told me they were going to trade the bicycle so they could get a pig."

Currently, the Gooches sponsor two children and a third through his law office. They are a Thai boy, Niran Phetbokae, 5; an Indonesian boy, Poniran Pawiro, 14, and a Bolivian girl, Brigida Baza, 14. "The real test of Foster Parents Plan," Robert Gooch said, is what each $22 buys. He noted the cost of sponsorship today and what it was when they enrolled in 1958, by his recollection $12 or $15, and suggested comparing it with the rate of inflation on Westside real estate.

Gooch is an attorney and at Christmastime his firm does not send wine or gifts to clients or friends; those on a gift list are advised that $25 has been sent to Foster Parents Plan. Throughout the year, they share with those people photocopies of letters from their foster child, a much better idea, Gooch believes, than "a bottle of booze that they drink and forget about."

He noted that he recently drew up a will for a man who is a friend of one of his office staff; the man left $10,000 to Foster Parents Plan.

When, in October, the Gooches' granddaughter, Alysa, asked if she might have a foster child, she had certain requests: She wanted a girl of her own age who spoke English.

Alysa's parents and grandparents thought the request for a child over carefully. Was this a childish whim, or would she follow through? She was told, "You can't let a child who needs the help down." She understood; arrangements were made for her to earn the $22 a month through household chores and, Gooch said, laughing, "not making noise when she comes to my office."

Palm Leaf Hut

Alysa's child is Meriam, a 6-year-old Filipino girl whose mother, a fish vendor, was deserted by the father during the pregnancy. The child, her mother, two cousins and an aunt and uncle live on $10.85 a month; home is a palm leaf hut with bamboo slat floor. Early on, Alysa wanted to send Meriam a Cabbage Patch doll. It was an opportunity for her to be reminded that Meriam's family doesn't even have furniture.

Composer Burt Bacharach has an understanding with Foster Parents Plan: At all times, he is to have 20 children under his sponsorship.

His association with the agency began, he said, in 1962 when he saw an advertisement and decided "it was something I wanted to do. As I started to do better and the career started to flourish, I just started adding more children."

He has yet to meet any of the children. He had hoped to do so during a South American tour but his schedule didn't take him to any of the countries where his foster children lived.

In Promotional Film

Bacharach recently filmed a 20-minute presentation for Foster Parents Plan, "something they can show for Rotary, things like that, as well as for television access." There is Bacharach narration over footage of foster children filmed in their countries and there is Bacharach being interviewed while seated at a piano. The music is a Bacharach composition: "What the World Needs Now."

When actress Shirley Jones and comedian-turned-producer Marty Ingels married in 1977, he recalled: "I had lived a flamboyant, crazy life. Then I suddenly met America's Snow White princess. I had never had children, and Shirley loves children. For a long time we had to consider whether or not we would have children."

Weighing everything, including the fact that her three sons (among them actor Shaun Cassidy) had been born by Caesarean, they decided against it.

Then, three years ago, Foster Parents Plan contacted them about being media spokespeople and, Ingels recalled: "They said in a kind of humorous way, you know how truth in advertising works in television, so we have to give you a foster child. It was like Sunbeam. They sent over 300 toasters."

Before they could say Kenya, they had committed themselves to being foster parents to a little boy, Kariuki Njiru. The first exchange of letters was, Ingels said, "a tremendous lesson in humanity for us. Here was a kid in a village in Kenya who'd never been to a movie, doesn't know what the term show business is, has never lived in anything but a mud hut, and animals for him are something to raise to eat or sell for skins.

Relying on Basics

"I had to scrape off all the extra goo that we in Beverly Hills get familiar with. We had to strip ourselves of all our fur trim and speak to a little boy about basics. Thank God for climate."

Jones and Ingels "smuggled" a package of pencils, notebooks and paper to the child--"My God," he said, "he was writing on a papaya leaf." He added, "He still writes me letters about that little book."

He added: "Shirley, being the healthy one in the family, exchanges love like bus tokens. It's very difficult for me. I have many Jewish neuroses. When he starts writing me warm letters that he misses hearing from me, it scares the hell out of me. It's a little scary that there's someone for whom I am a parental figure."

Visiting with her foster child, 9-year-old Said El Rawy, and his family in old Cairo in December, travel agent Wright found that, although an interpreter was along, all that was needed to break the ice were warm smiles and the assortment of small American toys--soap bubbles, coloring books, kaleidoscopes, etc.--that she had packed.

"There are 12 of them living together," she said, including Said's six siblings, one of whom is married and has children. "They live in what we would call a tenement house, two rooms in the basement of the building. Each is about the size of one of our small bedrooms. There is running water and there is a small room that's a combination kitchen and bathroom, with very primitive facilities. They have somehow managed to rig up electrical lighting, one or two light bulbs."

Income of $60 a Month

The family income, she learned, is $60 a month; the father is in poor health and the mother contributes by selling vegetables she purchases wholesale to people in the neighborhood. In a city where housing is desperately short, and where people live in tombs, Said's family is relatively well off.

"If the children can get good grades in grammar school and high school," Wright said, "they can have a free college education and be able to get out of the ghetto. Unfortunately, public school classes are terribly overcrowded. The teachers are terribly underpaid and therefore not very motivated. To get good grades, the children need outside tutoring. Part of the money I have been sending to Said has been to pay for tutoring." Another portion has been to enable the family to make repairs to their home.

Said showed his American foster mother his schoolwork, in Arabic; he was proud that he had made no mistakes. "He told me he wanted to be a doctor," Wright said. "When I asked him why, he said because he really would like to help people."

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