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Founder of Emergency Shelter Is Hoping to Build on a Dream

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the late 1970s, Lorraine Castro had a dream.

The Los Angeles County children’s social worker talked to everyone who would listen about opening a private emergency care shelter for infants and toddlers born of drug-addicted or abusive parents.

It took 10 years, but her struggle bore fruit when the Bienvenidos Children’s Center opened its doors in a former Internal Revenue Service office building in West Covina in January, 1987.

Now, Castro is dreaming again. She wants to move the shelter from the office building to a 4.3-acre spread of trees and greenery at two turn-of-the-century Altadena estates.

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With the fund-raising acumen that has enabled Bienvenidos to grow into a network of five child centers with 150 employees, Castro is well on her way to opening Bienvenidos Children’s Village. Now in the planning stage, the Village could become reality in less than two years.

By securing a temporary loan that comes due in December, Bienvenidos has purchased the property at Palm Street and Raymond Avenue, a Craftsman-style house on 2.8 acres plus the Spanish-style dwelling next door. Meanwhile, a private foundation, which asked not to be named, has given funds to draw up plans and buy a van for transportation.

Castro is confident the foundation will come through with the $4 million Bienvenidos needs for renovation and construction.

Tentatively, the project will contain seven modules scattered amid winding pathways. Each module will have four bedrooms with two or three babies in each, for a total of more than 70 beds. Bienvenidos currently maintains only 46. An infant center will house 36 children from newborn to 2, and the toddler and sibling center will support 24 children ages 2 to 5 and 12 siblings up to age 10.

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Although the Village has yet to obtain a county conditional-use permit, the Altadena Town Council endorsed the project in November, 1990.

Bought by the YMCA in the mid-'70s and used as a children’s day camp for about 10 years, the estate at 183 E. Palm St. was originally owned by Scott Way, an early Altadena settler.

The Altadena property would hardly look like Eden to a passerby. The YMCA had put up temporary wooden sheds that have since been taken down and remain as piles of rubble on the front lawn. But when Castro looks at it, she sees “heaven” in the form of recovering toddlers romping on the rolling, wooded hillside.

Bienvenidos’ West Covina shelter is on a commercial street. There’s no greenery--only parking spaces and a cramped outdoor play yard. The space isn’t sufficient to combine programs for the little ones and their older siblings.

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By contrast, the Altadena property has more than 20 mature oaks, some deodars and many shrubs. “The birds of paradise are symbolic,” Castro said. “It is a paradise.”

In the Village, Castro said, there will be enough room to keep siblings under the same roof.

Her plan is to centralize West Covina offices in one building and move the shelter and headquarters to Altadena, where there will be additional offices.

The Village will have a greenhouse, petting zoo, atrium and indoor and outdoor play space and therapy center.

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Plans for Altadena also include incorporating Bienvenidos’ two other arms, Bienvenidos Foster Family Agency and Family Services Division.

The Bienvenidos Foster Family Agency places children graduating from the programs into foster homes that it certifies. To make follow-through more convenient, Bienvenidos plans to have both the foster family agency and the infant shelter headquartered in Altadena. There are currently foster family offices in West Covina, Ontario, East Los Angeles and Van Nuys.

The Family Services Division works with high-risk families with medically fragile babies (who account for a third of Bienvenidos’ population) as well as those reunited with their children after foster care placement. Parents are taught how to better care for their children and how to better manage their own emotions.

These two projects operate mainly from branch offices in El Monte and East Los Angeles.

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Establishing Bienvenidos was no easy task. “It took miracles and prayers,” Castro said. She began planning it shortly after meeting Jerome Seliger, a fellow employee at McClaren Children’s Center, a Los Angeles County facility in El Monte.

Initially a probation worker, Castro discovered that the juvenile delinquents under her guidance had all been abused as children. She began to feel that the early treatment and prevention of abuse is the answer to antisocial behavior.

Over coffee, the two found that they shared disillusionment with the system in Los Angeles County. McClaren was overcrowded and caretakers were often too busy to be sympathetic to their wards, Castro said. She and Seliger discussed possible solutions and decided to open a private center.

When they settled on the 11,000-square-foot West Covina IRS building as a site for their program, Seliger refinanced his house to pay the first six months’ operating costs and Castro prevailed on a well-to-do friend to buy the $1 million building and lease it back to the center for $12,000 a month, postponing payments for 10 months.

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“It was quite a risk,” said Castro’s friend, Marlene Lopez, a county employee who has been successful in real estate investments. “I’m just a civil service employee, but I had a lot of faith in her dedication and ability.”

Seliger, currently president of the organization’s board, has since been reimbursed for his loan.

A licensed, nonprofit facility, Bienvenidos covers its costs largely by per child federal and state funding, some of which is matched by the county--as is usual for private group homes. For the rest, the agency relies on private grants and community donations of clothing and supplies.

Castro said that reimbursement comes on a per-child basis at a standard rate that covers 90% of actual cost, which is about $130 a day.

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Since the center opened, more than 1,500 children from birth to age 3 have gone through the shelter while the juvenile courts attempted to sort out family problems. “About 90% of our babies are born drug addicted,” Castro said.

Castro concurs with experts convinced that the first years of life are crucial and indelible.

“We see demonstrable changes in who the child is from when he or she walks in to when they leave,” she said. “And no matter what the child may go back to, what we do here can’t be erased.”


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