CLOSE UP : The Importance of Being Alice

As a child, Sue Houle was often told that her long blond hair and fair skin made her a dead ringer for Lewis Carroll's Alice. And eight years ago, she began to use her looks and her love of Alice to bring Wonderland to life.

Houle, a photojournalist, was working as a volunteer at a local convalescent home. But she found that dressing in her everyday clothes "just didn't seem to do the trick" for the elderly residents. So she bought a blue dress, a white apron, candy-striped stockings and threw her hair back in a headband. And "Alice" appeared.

She soon realized that there were a lot more elderly people than she alone could help. So she founded Burbank-based Alice-in-Wonderland Volunteer Service, which has 23 Alices who bring company and cheer to hundreds of elderly people in local retirement facilities, hospitals and private homes. There is also a smaller program in Arizona.

Houle also works her magic with young people. At a recent visit to Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, she was mobbed. "The kids want to play with my hair and talk to me. Not one of them ever asks me my real name; they assume I'm Alice," she says.

"The Alice costume has sort of a Florence Nightingale effect. It's a remembrance of times past for many. It's strange; some Alzheimer's patients know Alice, but they never remember Sue."

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