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NORTH HILLS : Former Actress Fills Program With Her Spirit

Reforming the nation’s welfare system isn’t as complicated as some policy wonks and pundits make it seem in the opinion of Christina Ann Princely, founder of The Great Spirit Center, a nonprofit charity that recently opened an office in North Hills.

A former actress who appeared in Elvis Presley movies and the television series “Mission Impossible,” Princely has lived on both sides of the line that separates the haves from the have-nots. A bitter divorce in 1982 and a streak of bad luck left her briefly homeless with a young son to support.

Two years ago, operating out of her garage in Redondo Beach, Princely began helping people pry themselves out of misery and dependence on a clunky welfare system that seemed to reward lethargy at the expense of initiative.

She began with a desire to help indigent single parents who possessed the determination--but lacked the means--to get themselves off welfare and start again. She has helped single parents do this by arranging job training, by negotiating with landlords for lower rents, and by giving them enough food, shampoo and toothpaste to live decently.

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By signing up sponsors from Target to TRW to L.A. Cellular to health food stores and by getting a trade school, beauty salons and real estate agents to donate their services, Princely provides tailor-made assistance and support to carefully selected clients, some of whom are now off welfare and working.

She receives no taxpayer dollars or grants for her work, though her organization is a registered nonprofit corporation. She won’t reveal her age or her means of support, and is vague about the turning point in her life, two years ago, that led her to launch her crusade.

“Our program is unlike any other program I’m aware of,” Princely says in a slight Texas drawl.

“We will only work with those who want to get off welfare, and who will use their welfare checks to that end, not abuse it. We also require our clients to go to school. Education is number one.”

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Some helped by Princely said all they needed was a little encouragement--and a few breaks--to start rebuilding.

A year ago, Cheryl Wendell, 42, from the South Bay, was unemployed and reeling from a divorce from a husband she said refused to pay child support for their 4-year-old son. A flight attendant for 17 years before her marriage, Wendell hadn’t worked for years and had nowhere to live.

After Wendell spent a night in a vacant, trash-strewn apartment with her son, Princely helped her find a cheap apartment in Hawthorne, and arranged for computer training classes. Wendell was on welfare for two months, but now has a job with a Torrance law firm.

“I’m fairly strong. I’m not unintelligent or unresourceful,” Wendell said. “But to shoulder what I had to, alone, and to show a bright face to my son every day, nobody can understand what that’s like. You need help.”

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Dick Babb, 53 moved to North Hills from Illinois with his three young children in October, after his wife of 12 years left him. Wednesday, Princely helped Babb iron out a problem that held up his unemployment check. She’s helping Babb locate a reliable baby-sitting service while he seeks a job.

“God bless her for what she’s doing,” Babb said. “I’d eventually get off welfare even without her help, but now, I think it will happen sooner. She helped my children enjoy their Christmas this year.”

Princely hopes to start Great Spirit programs nationwide. For now, though, she needs donations just to stay afloat, to pay for services she can’t receive free. To reach The Great Spirit Center, call (818) 830-9228.


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