Their Hearts Are Healthy : Disabled Students, Finding They Have Much to Give, Donate Earnings to Homeless


It wasn't the largest donation that the Los Angeles Mission has received so far this holiday season.

But Skid Row relief workers say the $34 Christmas check they received the other day came from some kids with big hearts: children on crutches and wheelchairs.

Physically handicapped youngsters from Hollywood donated the profits from a do-it-yourself "company" they created to teach themselves business skills by manufacturing and selling decorated holiday coffee mugs and T-shirts.

The children have suffered from a variety of things including disabling cancer, crippling polio and disfiguring fires. But Los Angeles' homeless, they decided, are worse off they than are.

"We were kind of tempted to keep the money for ourselves," admitted student Erik Garcia, 12. "But I don't like to see people on the streets digging in garbage for something to eat."

The nine children attend a special class at Bancroft Jr. High School. As a group project, they formed the "Cougar Shop" to learn production and sales techniques. For their "product," they decided to hand-decorate Christmas mugs and shirts.

When the gift-type items turned out to be big sellers, the pupils learned a final lesson from teacher Sherley Allen.

"Good business people invest in their business. And they invest in their community," Allen told them.

Leaders of the mission traveled to the classroom to personally say thanks for the contribution, which one social worker termed "extraordinary."

"Here's somebody with his or her own problems being sensitive to others with even worse problems," said mission Chaplain Cedric Hinson.

In their own way, the children are symbolic of the way many adults in Los Angeles are continuing to support Skid Row relief work, said Mike Edwards, the mission's director. Despite the faltering economy, donations to the 40-year-old mission have remained steady this year.

"Even though a lot of people are going through really hard times, they still care for people in worse shape than they are," Edwards said Tuesday.

Personal donations ranging up to $100,000 will probably be offered to the mission during the Christmas season, he said. Additionally, gifts of food have been pledged by groups as diverse as the "Tired Eyes," a band that plays concerts at college campuses, and employees of Santa Monica's Broadway department store.

Estimates compiled by the city's Community Redevelopment Agency suggest that fewer than 1,000 people sleep on downtown streets. Another 8,000 live in Skid Row hotels and about 2,100 live in downtown shelters, the agency calculates. In recent weeks, however, the number of people showing up at the mission for free meals has jumped from about 18,000 a month to 23,000, Edwards said.

Hunger and homelessness also have spread into their neighborhoods, according to the Bancroft Jr. High students.

"You can tell them by the clothes they wear and by the fact they're looking for food in the trash," said eighth-grader Juan Campos, 12.

Said classmate Hillrie Stover, 12: "We have homes and food to eat. We'd like the homeless to have it, too. They need stuff more than me. I have enough stuff."

Thirteen-year-old Angela Presnell maneuvered her wheelchair into position to decorate another mug that will sell for $7.

"This helps the homeless," she said, applying a Christmas decal to the cup. "And it helps us feel better about ourselves--that we can do things ourselves."

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