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Agency Revamps Its AIDS Services : Charities: Project Angel Food is ending its counseling program. Group will focus on expanding delivery of meals to homebound patients.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A glitzy Los Angeles AIDS charity that provides nearly 400 hot meals daily to homebound AIDS patients is shutting down counseling services that were once its primary mission.

But that is not bad news, Project Angel Food officials insist, because the often troubled charity will be able to focus on expanding its meals program. Attempts are being made to place about 200 counseling clients with other nonprofit agencies that provide such services, charity officials say.

The changes represent a new chapter in the glamorous, stormy history of Project Angel Food, founded in 1989 by charismatic Hollywood spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson.

The reorganization comes two months after a financial crisis clouded the future of a charity that has been widely praised for its services despite its inner turmoil.

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When eight employees were laid off, fired or quit in anger last July, questions were raised about Project Angel Food’s solvency and management after a six-month period that had been marked by the firing of an executive director, the resignation of Williamson and other board members and an unsuccessful bid by employees to unionize.

In discussing the reorganization, Chairman David Kessler said the charity has stabilized its finances but is struggling to find volunteers vital in the preparation and delivery of food. “Today I was 12 drivers short for the routes,” project coordinator Tom Murray said recently.

The layoffs apparently alienated some volunteers, but contributions continued to come in amid the reports of fiscal woes. Among the recent donations were several in memory of actor Anthony Perkins, who died recently of AIDS. Perkins, along with his wife, Berry, had been key volunteers with Project Angel Food.

Kessler predicted that commitments from actress Elizabeth Taylor, producers David Geffen and Barry Diller, and Williamson should ensure the success of fund-raising efforts and plans to move into a larger kitchen so more meals can be served.

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Taylor’s husband, Larry Fortensky, has joined Geffen and Diller on the charity’s advisory board, while Williamson, now a best-selling author, has agreed to underwrite the $50,000 cost of a celebrity flea market Nov. 8.

With the cooperation of the city of West Hollywood, Project Angel Food has unveiled another program designed to raise funds. Under “The West Hollywood Palms Project,” plaques in tribute of AIDS victims are to be placed at each of 200 palm trees that line Santa Monica Boulevard. To have a memorial erected, donations of $1,500 are asked to be made to Project Angel Food.

In many respects, the reorganization and fund-raising efforts represent a rapprochement between the agency’s board and Williamson. Among the contributors and volunteers who had become disaffected by the turmoil were devotees of Williamson’s spiritual teachings, which have been described as a blend of traditional religious thought, pop psychology and recovery techniques.

In recent weeks, many have signed a petition that said the charity’s financial crunch “can only be viewed as a karmic pay-back for the ouster of Marianne Williamson.” The signatories requested that the organization apologize to Williamson and bring her back.

Kessler praised Williamson and said her financial contribution is an example of her continuing support for Project Angel Food.

“She’s obviously supportive,” Kessler said. Petitioners, he said, should realize that “we’re here, we’re strong, we haven’t missed a beat--and we still need their help for our clients.”

Among the reconstructed board of directors are movie producer Howard Rosenman and photographer Michael Childers. Both had left the board because of personality clashes with Williamson.

“The whole group--everyone--realized that all of this (turmoil) ended up hurting the charity,” Kessler said. “Everyone decided the charity is what is important, and rose above differences to make the charity work.”

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Rosenman said it is appropriate for the counseling program to be phased out because Williamson had been its driving force and, without her, fewer people were seeking such services from the agency. About 200 clients are expected to be referred to the Pacific Counseling Center or the Shanti Foundation, both of which provide HIV counseling.

There is also the possibility that Williamson may revitalize a counseling center. Under the complex reorganization, Kessler said, the charity is formally adopting the name Project Angel Food, while its original name, Los Angeles Center for Living, will revert to Williamson, whose plans are unclear. Efforts to reach her in recent days were unsuccessful.


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