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Cell-Block Santa Turns Prison Into Toy Center for Kids

Times Staff Writer

For thousands of needy Orange County children this Christmas, Santa Claus will be serving a life sentence in a New Jersey state prison for kidnaping.

Tough-talking Rick Rowe, whose former line of work involved hijacking trucks, has dispatched a truckload of toys to Anaheim, scheduled to arrive this morning.

The 46-year-old convict founded and heads a nationwide toy drive called Ayuda, which is Spanish for help . For nine years, his 20-inmate group has shipped holiday cheer to children in 15 states and Canada.

“It keeps my sanity,” Rowe said in a telephone interview from his “office” at Eastern New Jersey State Prison. “I seen what happens to guys here after 10 or 20 years. They go buggy.”

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Due to Be Paroled

Rowe, up for parole next year after 15 Christmases in prison, said he heard about the needy children in Orange County from a warehouse manager who helped him with a toy shipment to Eureka, Calif., last month.

Russ Berrie Co., based in New Jersey but with a branch in Anaheim, is supplying $100,000 worth of stuffed animals--about 20,000 toys--to four charity groups in Orange County: the Orangewood Children’s Home, the Salvation Army, the city of Anaheim’s Christmas basket program and the Indian Center of Orange County.

“I’m thrilled to death,” said Tom Moffet, coordinator of social services for the Indian Center, which helps 600 children and their families. “A lot of people who aren’t behind bars could help and don’t. I take my hat off to the gentleman. That’s a sweet touch.”

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Rowe, a hyperkinetic talker, interrupted an interview this week to be included in an inmate head count at the prison. Later, he told about how he arrived at this unlikely avocation as a do-gooder.

“I don’t hide that I was a criminal,” Rowe said. “I’m no angel. But I want nicer things in life.”

The toy idea came to him in 1979, when his daughter visited him on Christmas Day at the prison.

“She was just a baby then,” Rowe recalled. “The first thing she said was, ‘Where’s my present?’ And she’s looking around. Put yourself in that position. How’d yuh feel? It was terrible.”

So Rowe applied his considerable organization skills to founding Ayuda. At that time, he was already well known as founder of the Juvenile Awareness Program, the controversial prison encounter sessions featured in the award-winning documentary, “Scared Straight.” The film’s portrayal of delinquent teen-agers brought to the prison and shown the brutal realities of life behind bars had made Rowe a minor celebrity.

Thousands of Gifts

In the first year of the toy drive, his group collected 33,000 donated gifts, and soon the program grew to be one of the largest charity toy drives in the country. Rowe estimates that he has shipped a total of 11 million Christmas presents.

In 1986, Rowe shipped a truckload of toys for needy children to the California Highway Patrol office in Newhall.

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“We were inundated and it was wonderful,” a CHP dispatcher recalled.

First Lady Nancy Reagan sent the inmates a letter commending Rowe’s group in 1984 and accepted a plaque on their behalf at a White House ceremony. Rowe said he was unable to attend for the obvious reason. He watched on television.

“That made me feel real good when she walked out of the White House with the plaque,” Rowe said. “I mean, Nancy Reagan! You know what a hard-nose she is.”

Rowe runs the program from a mahogany-paneled office at the prison, equipped with a computer, typewriters, telephones and a copier. Rowe was given the office after setting up his Scared Straight program.

“You ain’t ever met an inmate like Rick,” he said, breaking into a laugh. “When I went to run an office, I done it right.”

Persuasive, persistent, Rowe works the phones and the U.S. mail in appealing to toy companies, warehouses and shipping firms to donate their trucks, products and time to helping his program. In return they get tax breaks and press attention, Rowe said.


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