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Free Phone Calls Help to Ring in the Season : Christmas: On Skid Row, the down-and-out get to reach out to loved ones. At the beach, it’s sunny. And amid hard times, the Southland finds many ways to celebrate the holiday.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

James Jackson received the Christmas present he hoped for but didn’t really expect. It was an invitation to come home.

Jackson, 36, was at the Union Rescue Mission on Downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row on Saturday for a holiday dinner of baked ham, candied yams, fruit pie and alcohol-free eggnog.

He then lined up for one of four telephones from which those at the mission were allowed to make free Christmas calls anywhere in the continental United States--one of the many holiday efforts to help the homeless, the poor and the down-on-their-luck in the Los Angeles area on Christmas Day.

One caller tearfully reached children in Illinois she hadn’t talked to in months. A man left cheery messages on a relative’s answering machine in Alaska. Another man called the White House in an unsuccessful attempt to wish President and Mrs. Clinton a happy holiday.

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Jackson nervously dialed “363 miles north to Stockton"--to his aunt, a realistic woman who had warned him two years ago that a move to Los Angeles might not bring quick success.

He had left Stockton anyway, only to end up unemployed and sinking into alcohol abuse. Now, he said, he is in a recovery program, living in a Skid Row hotel and planning to return in a few months to Stockton for janitorial or landscaping work.

“I told her God has been good to me, keeping me clean and sober,” Jackson said after finishing his call. “She said I could come up as soon as I want to and stay with her to get a fresh start. That’s given me something to look forward to.”

About 400 took advantage of the free calls provided at the mission for five hours on Saturday by Express Tel, an Irvine-based telecommunications company.

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“Our goal is simply to make Christmas a little brighter for people less fortunate by putting them in touch with family members and other loved ones they haven’t talked to in a long time,” said Greg Lamont, an Express Tel spokesman.

Elsewhere in Southern California, residents were doing their best to take the stings of recession, sickness, crime, fire and other personal woes out of Christmas. They delivered toys to needy children, served food to the hungry, prayed for peaceful streets, told jokes and even went Rollerblading at the beach.

At a North Hollywood halfway house for parolees, Randy Hutchins was celebrating his first Christmas out of prison in four years. He lives in the Ryan House on Laurel Canyon Boulevard with his girlfriend and her two young sons. Along with other residents, they shared a holiday dinner of ham, turkey, punch and cupcakes.

“I’ve got what I want for Christmas,” said Hutchins, 30, who served time for receiving stolen property and a subsequent parole violation. “Being out, being with my family, being able to sit down for a Christmas dinner . . . it makes me appreciate things more.”

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Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger M. Mahony celebrated Mass at the Los Angeles Men’s Central Jail, urging about 400 inmates to help “bring about the change of heart” needed to stem violence in the city’s neighborhoods.

Later, about 200 people attended the Christmas morning Mass at St. Vibiana’s Cathedral to hear Mahony explain the significance of the birth of Jesus.

“We need once more to be reminded of the depths and the greatness and the abundance of God’s love and mercy for us. And besides, as the shepherds found out on the hillsides, that good news must be shared,” Mahony said.

A victim of the Dec. 2 shooting at an Oxnard unemployment office that left four people dead, including the gunman, and four wounded, wrote a Christmas letter published Saturday in The Times and other papers.

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“If anything can come from this tragedy . . . it is the awareness that we are all interconnected, and we must join together with kindness and compassion to bring a new meaning and purpose to our lives,” Irma Lopez wrote.

In lighter celebrations of the day, hundreds of struggling actors and comedians turned out for free meals at the Laugh Factory on Sunset Boulevard. About 1,300 schoolchildren attended a Christmas party at the Bicycle Club Casino in Bell Gardens that featured gifts and visits by Garfield the cartoon cat, Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster and Big Bird and Santa Claus.

Poor waves disappointed surfers, but temperatures in the 70s attracted about 30,000 people to area beaches for biking, jogging and Rollerblading, officials said.

Meanwhile, leaders of volunteer operations reported more people seeking help than last year.

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“We had twice as many neighborhood families as we expected,” said Wayne Teuerle of the Long Beach Rescue Mission, which served meals to about 1,000 in the morning and expected another 400 in the evening.

At the free telephone booths in Downtown Los Angeles, William Bradley Bauman had the White House number scribbled on a paper bag. A resident of one of the Skid Row shelters, he said he wants President Clinton’s help to change the Constitution so that people younger than 35 can run for the highest office in the land.

Bauman, 27, confidently dialed and then asked to speak to “Bill and Hillary.” The operator, he said, told him the First Family was not available and “that I shouldn’t just call them Bill and Hillary.”

Bauman left a message anyway: “Have a Merry Christmas.”

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Times staff writer Abigail Goldman contributed to this story.


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