Celebrity Day at MacLaren Hall : A Carnival Atmosphere at Holding Facility for Children

Times Staff Writer

Ignoring the dozens of stars, the little kids besieged Donald and Goofy and Pluto.

It was the annual United Friends of the Children's Celebrity Day at MacLaren Children's Center, the county holding facility for children in protective custody. The carnival games, the celebrities, the prizes, the pizza were all aimed at making abused and abandoned children feel special.

A skinny teen-ager watched and waited as Donald Duck hugged the kids and danced. The Duck was very good. The little kids squealed with delight, while the teen-ager looked both cynical and puzzled. Any youngster winding up in this place had a right to both those emotions--but was he cynical enough to spoil the magic for the little ones?

The little kids ran to the games, and the Duck continued his cartoon shuffle.

The teen-ager approached the Duck and gingerly tapped him on the shoulder. The Duck turned. The teen-ager leaned over. And Donald Duck hugged him, too.

That's all the skinny teen-ager had been waiting for. A hug from Donald Duck. Or just a hug.

Sylvester Stallone had his picture taken, over and over, the Polaroid shots getting pressed into anxious hands. He wrote his autograph, over and over, signing the autograph books and papers "From your special friend . . . from a friend who likes you . . . from someone you know is your friend."

The girl showed off her autographs from the red Leatherette books every child had. The first signature was not from the celebrity, but from another MacLaren Hall child: "Dear L. I love you and I am happy to be your friend."

This was a happy day. L wore a homemade sign pinned to her shirt. "Hello," it read. "My name is . . . and you are welcome to MacLaren Hall today."

She proudly went through her autograph book, and it was only when she pushed up her wristband that the deep scars from the burns showed on her wrist.

Celebrity Day, with its stars and softball game, is the highlight of the year-round preSence at the El Monte faCility by the 45-member United Friends of the Children. MacLaren is a stark and cold-looking structure--originally built as an institution for juvenile offenders. Now children rescued from punishing situations are placed here, in an environment that sadly still reflects its origin as a place of punishment. Keys are necessary to enter the residence halls euphemistically called cottages, and if the steel-frame beds with their sagging mattresses and showers with no curtains aren't Oliver Twist, they're surely not the Bobbsey Twins either.

Abused or Neglected

The children here have been removed from their homes for protection. Larry Cory, who heads the Children's Services Division of the county counsel's office, said: "These children have been removed from their parents because they have been sexually abused at home, physically abused at home, or have not received appropriate care. The parental use of drugs or alcohol are many times a factor in these cases. . . . Even with runaways, typically many of them run away because of those same terrible factors."

What greets these children at MacLaren is "the bare necessities," a holding facility, an emergency center.

But instead of the 36-hour emergency stay mandated by law, the kids at "Mac" wind up there, on and off, for months and months, according to Nancy Daly, a longtime volunteer and now chairman of the commission of the 2-year-old Department of Children's Services. There are 5,000 kids counted as passing through MacLaren every year, but each time a child comes through, he or she is counted again. To use the crisp social-work term, there are "repeated failures in placement." So some toddlers as well as some teen-agers can come through the revolving door at MacLaren six or eight or 10 times in a year.

Los Angeles Councilman Joel Wachs, waiting to present a citation at Saturday's party, said that it is "amazing what Nancy Daly and Stacey Winkler have done. They have not only done this," he pointed to the field crowded with stars and happy children. "They have sensitized the county to the plight of these children and they were the major force in starting this whole department."

But Stacey Winkler, in the red sweater and jeans that was the Friends uniform for the day, said that what was important is "the new effort, a real joint venture" between the new Department of Children's Services, the MacLaren staff and the United Friends.

"There is no fault to be placed in any way with what's wrong at MacLaren. This is a system that is overcrowded and a reflection of the times. And the pressures that people live with, day to day. We don't have other places for these kids, so MacLaren becomes a dumping ground--victims of abuse, mentally ill children, children with deep psychiatric problems and street kids. There is so little money and so little priority placed on children by government. . . ."

Winkler pushes her points, as she has been doing for six years, since, as a volunteer at MacLaren, the crying need of the children hit home. Winkler and her friend, Daly, the first president of United Friends, used their Hollywood connections to pull stars and strings--their spouses are actor-producer Henry Winkler, who's often at MacLaren, and Warner Brothers' chairman Bob Daly. They lobbied unceasingly until a special Children's Services Department was established. And they are both commissioners for that department.

A Major Turn

"We had to make a major turn in our group," Winkler said. "We asked our members, 'Are you interested as a group in supporting change? Or should we just come out every month and keep our mouths shut and do nails?' It was absolutely overwhelming. They all said, 'We want to make a difference.' "

Along the way, there were some confrontations. One longtime volunteer, who did not want to be quoted by name, said that the involvement of a private support group in a county facility made for some difficulties. "When you are working with a private facility, that facility relies totally on the support group. There is 100% cooperation. When you are dealing with the county . . . they find it difficult to have private citizens involved and making suggestions. It's a little threatening."

United Friends--this year's president is Judy Reisberg--has raised more than $1 million in cash and services over the past six years, and all of that money, Winkler said, goes directly to the children. There is no overhead.

It's only through the private involvement that anything beyond the bare necessities gets to these kids.

Helen Kleinberg, a commission member and guest for the day with her husband, United Artists executive Ken Kleinberg, explained that the transition from home to MacLaren is abrupt and frightening--a child goes to school, there are bruises, questions are asked, suddenly the home--which despite all it's horrors is all the child knows--that home is gone, probably never to be seen again. And what is now in the child's life is MacLaren.

A child had told her, Kleinberg related, that this is the best day of her life. Kleinberg shook her head and added, "And it probably is."

Babies--yes, infants, some of them found in dumpsters--were in a nursery that broke the institutional pattern with pink and blue wallpaper and cutout animals, rooms designed by Smith-Cleary Inc., which donated its services. Gerald McRaney rocked a baby, repeating as he patted him, "You're a nice baby."

The United Friends gave the nursery too. Barbra Streisand, producer Jon Peters, CBS Records and Warner Communications gave the swimming pool. Peters also gave an exercise room. Warners gave an Atari Room.

But it is the ongoing personal contact that makes a major difference in these abandoned and abused children's lives. Like the monthly visits called "Good Grooming Day." Students from the Vidal Sassoon Academy cut hair, and volunteers shampoo, manicure and "paint faces." Still, it is really a chance to hug and touch and "make them feel special."

"But the soap . . . ," Daly said. "The soap is so strong it's hard on a kid's skin. If we could just get someone, on a continuing basis, to give soap that wouldn't hurt the kids."

The United Friends get support from a wide array of places.

So many stars have been faithful visitors and supporters that any list could accidentally forget a favorite. Sally Struthers, John Ritter, Emmanuel Lewis, Doug Barr, Adrian Zmed, Bonnie Franklin, Ed Begley Jr., Martin Cove, Gordon Thompson, Linda Lavin, Brian Patrick Clark, are old-timers. Newcomers among the dozens Saturday included Richard Dean Anderson, Connie Sellecca, Gil Gerard, Pee-wee Herman and Soleil Moon Fry.

Every year, Russ Gill of the Hollywood All Stars shows up to run the softball game. All the kids were sporting new Adidas from Angelo Anastasio. One boy, Carlos, had been so excited about the shoes when they were fitted earlier in the week that he kept insisting the first pair tried on actually fit him--even though they were two sizes too small.

Tony Fanara of Palermo's pizza in Los Feliz sends over pizza for hundreds every year. Howard Perley supplies the cookies. Taco Bell this year set up a full operation. Publicist Richard Grant once again volunteered weeks of services. T. J. Baptie of Disney sent Donald, etc., and supplies movies regularly. Every year, a goodly portion of the 49ers come down from San Francisco and AirCal provides their transportation.

The Gap helped the United Friends set up their "Friendly Gap" store in one of the MacLaren buildings. The children at "Mac" frequently need reinforcement in the simplest of living tasks--hygiene, keeping their rooms clean--so that they will stand a better chance of being placed. For good efforts, they receive points that are quickly translated into purchasing power at the store--with materials donated or supplied at low cost from The Gap, the Dodgers, Adidas, put together by two volunteers, Rochelle Litke and Alison Levant. The children, Daly said, "come with nothing. If they go home and back again, they return here with nothing. These kids have very few possessions."

Now, Daly stressed, one of the next projects is to enlist corporate help for their "Emancipation Program," aimed at helping 18-year-old children cope when they leave MacLaren. For some of these children, institutional life and their battered life before is all they know.

What has to be done--they quickly tick off a list--humanizing of the "cottages," paint and bedspreads and shower curtains and posters, better mattresses, blankets, all to make it more homelike, safer, warm. They've started on the senior boys' cottage and have gotten most of the way through the nursery. But that leaves an enormous amount to go.

It was the end of the day and Joanne Agoglia, one of the United Friends, stood looking at the animals with a young boy. The L.A. City Department of Animal Regulation had brought a petting zoo of goats and ducks and cats and dogs.

The boy was going through his shopping bag of treasures--toys and comics and games that he had "won" that day at the carnival games. He pulled out a calendar with a dog and a cat on its cover. He wanted to give it to Agoglia, to thank her for the day.

She reached down and told him how much the idea of his gift meant to her. But she wanted him to keep it for himself. And she pointed to the large type above the pets. "Look," she said. "It's called 'Friends.' And I'm a friend. I'm your friend." And she hugged him.

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