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For Child, Life on River Bottom Was an Education

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With her curly red hair and big blue eyes, 6-year-old Andy Wallace could be a poster child for efforts to pluck the homeless out of the wilderness and plop them back into civilization.

For the first three years of her life she lived with her parents in a three-room shanty staked deep on the dusty bottom of the Ventura River. But when flood waters ripped out the encampment four years ago, the family’s river bottom days ended.

Posting the area off-limits, Ventura city and county officials worked like never before to move more than 100 river-bottom squatters into more permanent housing and provide other assistance.

With the federal government’s help, Andy and her parents, Ted Edwards and Peggy Wallace, now live in a small apartment off Ventura Avenue. Andy is home-schooled and reads at third-grade level. She is talkative and curious, and prone to dancing on her toes much like a ballerina and telling corny jokes to whomever will listen.

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Edwards knows there are those who might look at Andy and say she was rescued from homelessness, that she is now a happy, well-adjusted kid because her parents were forced to adopt a more conventional lifestyle.

But he said nothing could be further from the truth.

“She spent the first three years of her life without television,” said Edwards, a chain-smoking Vietnam veteran with a ponytail that reaches halfway down his back. “She did a lot of reading, walking around and looking at things. We had three years to corrupt her into reading and we did it. I’d like to think it made a hell of a difference.”

A long line of social workers visited Edwards and Wallace when they decided to raise their infant daughter on the river bottom. But county workers concluded that despite the family’s lifestyle, Andy was being raised by loving parents in a stable home.

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Edwards said that hasn’t changed. But he said some things have changed--and for the better. Andy is learning how to use a computer and preparing to take art and gymnastics through the recreation department, activities she could not have done if still living on the river bottom.

And Edwards said Andy is definitely more sociable now.

“What’s a witch’s favorite subject in school?” she asked a stranger who showed up at her door recently. Before allowing time for an answer, she fires back: “Spelling.” She breaks into a fit of giggles, covering her freckled face with her hands.

Once a week Edwards takes Andy to Cabrillo Middle School in Ventura, where a teacher checks her schoolwork and assigns more. Last week she began working with clay, flattening it like a tortilla and stamping it with star shapes.

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“Look, daddy, I made the stars of the sky,” she said.

On the river bottom, Edwards and his daughter would spend most nights looking at stars, and then read together until she fell asleep. He said he misses that part of river-bottom life the most.

“We’ve got a lot more toys now,” Edwards said, referring to the computer and a satellite dish. “But it sure seems like we had a lot more fun back then.”


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