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O.C. Homeless Kids Get ‘Hope’ for the Holidays

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When 5-year-old Lananova Roach wakes up this morning, she won’t be able to scamper down to the family Christmas tree or gaze at bright Christmas lights or wonder how Santa Claus came down the chimney.

That’s because Lananova--"Novi” to her parents, Clara and Tony Roach--doesn’t have a chimney, or a place to hang Christmas lights, or a living room to place a Christmas tree. The Roach family is homeless.

But like thousands of other kids in Orange County, Novi will be able to tear through more than a dozen festively wrapped gifts and spend Christmas morning playing with new dolls and trying on new clothes, thanks to the county Department of Education’s Project HOPE, or Homeless Outreach Project for Education.

Under Project HOPE, teachers and instructional aides fan out around the county bringing books and lessons to homeless kids who might not otherwise have been able to attend school. A few weeks ago, Project HOPE teacher Ann Robinson began collecting “wish lists” from homeless families while making her rounds.

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Robinson then circulated the list around the office of the county Department of Education and asked employees to adopt a family and gather gifts to make the kids’ wishes come true. The response was overwhelming--more than 300 gifts were collected, along with hundreds of dollars in cash.

“We had $800 cash donated that was specifically marked to buy hotel time for Christmas, so some of the families could have a roof over their heads on Christmas day,” said Red Balfour, principal of the county’s Community Home Education Program. “One employee’s church heard about (the gift drive) and donated $700.”

Last week, with vans and cars laden with gifts, Robinson, Balfour and other Project HOPE staffers drove around the county to parks, motels and shelters and delivered the gifts to the programs’ kids. Siblings too young to participate in Project HOPE were also showered with goodies.

On Friday, Novi Roach beamed and tightly hugged Robinson as the Project HOPE staffers visited her family’s campsite in Featherly Regional Park and rolled out one of the gifts on Novi’s wish list: a brand new, pink bicycle.

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Novi lit up like a Christmas tree when she saw the bike, and brightened even more when assistant principal John Soto and instructional aide Grace Hutchings wheeled out a plastic carriage and presented her with a new doll. Nearby, her mother wiped tears from her eyes.

“I can’t believe she got it!” Clara, 33, told her husband, Tony, 38. He later said that the family has been homeless for most of the last three years and will be forced to spend part of today on the road relocating to a new site because their two-week limit at Featherly is up.

Novi, who had only three items on her wish list, including the doll and the bike, got much more. At least a dozen wrapped gifts--which her parents insisted will stay wrapped until today--were jammed into a cardboard box and a shopping bag.

“I got too much things!” Novi said with a thousand-watt smile. “I didn’t think I was going to get this much.”

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There was a similar reaction a day earlier when the Project HOPE team delivered five armloads of gifts to the Brunette family at the El Dorado Inn in Buena Park. Although the family of six does have a small countertop Christmas tree and a few decorations, the conditions were hardly the picture-perfect scene of a family on Christmas.

Julie and James Brunette, both 28, and their four children--twins Danielle and James Jr., 9; Stephanie, 4, and Courtney, 6 months, are all jammed into one cramped hotel room with just two beds. Danielle and James sleep on a makeshift bed in a closet. The kids, unable under hotel rules to play on the grounds outside, stay cooped up for most of the day.

But at least today and for some time to come, the kids will have new toys and games to occupy their time indoors. On Thursday, Robinson and Soto, along with Balfour and his two children, were greeted with shouts of “Wow!” when they delivered more than 25 gifts--including a huge train set--to the family.


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