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Worth the Wait : Many spend hours in line for Back-to-School Days clothes giveaway at Downtown mission.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She spent the night sitting on a scrap of cardboard and watching her two young sons doze fitfully in a baby stroller on a filthy Skid Row sidewalk.

Sara Campos was a long way from home Tuesday as she waited 17 hours in line for free children’s shoes and clothes in Downtown Los Angeles.

She had come from an unlikely place: suburban Tarzana--a community better known for its BMWs and $400,000 homes than for clothing giveaways.

Behind her in a line stretching three blocks were 5,000 others waiting for Back-to-School Days to begin at the Fred Jordan Mission. Two other mothers and 10 other children living in her apartment house were among them.

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“People might not realize it, but there are low-income buildings in Tarzana too,” Campos said. “There are people in Tarzana who need help too.”

Mission officials do realize it.

Children from as far as La Puente and Pomona were among those who stayed out all night to receive free shoes, jeans, T-shirts and school book bags Tuesday. The distribution resumes today from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 445 Towne Ave.

“This just shows there are poor people everywhere,” said Willie Jordan, widow of the mission founder. She launched Back-to-School Days seven years ago with a goal of buying school clothes for 100 children living in nearby Skid Row hotels.

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The program dramatically expanded the next year when Jordan persuaded the Foot Locker Stores chain to contribute new shoes. After that, she was able to get clothing makers such as Bugle Boy, Cherokee and Paris Blues to donate new clothing.

More than $750,000 worth will be given to about 7,000 children this year.

Starting the school year with new shoes and clothes is important to youngsters’ self-esteem, said Natividad Lopez, an Eastside mother of five who lined up at 6 p.m. Monday behind Campos.

“Without this I’d have to buy cheap shoes for the children,” said Lopez, who worked as a housekeeper before illness forced her to quit her job four months ago. “These are very, very good shoes.”

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Her 17-year-old daughter, Iris, agreed: “They’ll last a whole year. Staying in line all night is worth it.”

Two-dozen Foot Locker shop managers and salesmen helped distribute $90 Reeboks and Nikes. Another 200 volunteers organized jeans and dresses by size and helped youngsters find their right fit. Pizza Hut workers served juice and about 5,000 pizza slices.

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Volunteer Debbie Mendenhall of Fullerton exchanged 9-year-old Jeffrey Arroyo’s new sneakers for a larger size when the Eastside boy stepped outside and discovered they were too tight. Then she got his 5-year-old brother, Harold, a smaller pair when his were too loose. The boys had been in line 16 hours.

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Ten-year-old Johnny Guzman of Boyle Heights showed up 10 hours early. “I think the economy is getting better,” said his sister, Sandra Guzman, a student nurse. “But something like this is very good for low-income families that have to struggle to get by.”

Word of the annual back-to-school giveaway has spread far. Judy Bradley was among 69 volunteers who traveled by bus from Minneapolis to help.

Campos and friends Maria Tapia and Maria Ramos came by car from Tarzana for help.

Although their community has an average household income of $86,348, the most recent census statistics suggest that 6.1% of the area’s 71,680 residents live below the poverty level.

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Campos’ husband is an unemployed warehouseman, Ramos’ husband is ill and Tapia is a single parent. They all live in a Reseda Boulevard apartment house.

Campos indicated that sons Augustine, 4, and Sammy, 1, are still too young to notice whether they are wearing the latest fashions--or something slightly older and more used.

And having ants crawling over her as she sat on the smelly sidewalk made for a long night.

“I won’t do it again,” she said.

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“I’ve been coming here five years,” said Tapia, the mother of five. “I’ll be back here next year too.” Ramos, who also has five children, agreed.


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