Kids Are the Stars on Day of the Child

Times Staff Writer

An 8-year-old girl named Shana had two new experiences Sunday: She saw a sheep and she saw a goat. "They looked like they came off of TV," is how she later described the sensation.

That probably could have been said about a lot of the people gathered at the athletic stadium of Pierce College in Woodland Hills for the fifth annual Day of the Child.

"The children get 100% of the attention today," said Daphna Edwards Ziman, founder of Children Uniting Nations, which sponsors the event. "This is a day when all of the celebrities come to see them."

About 5,000 volunteers, including some actors, musicians and athletes, were mentors, each paired for the day with a previously neglected or abused child between the ages of 4 and 14.

The immediate goal was to have a fun-filled day enriched with hot dogs, cotton candy, face painting, music and carnival rides.

The longer-term goal, according to Ziman, was to encourage the adults to become permanent mentors willing to meet with their appointed children at least twice a month.

"Our community doesn't know who they are," Ziman said of the children, most of whom come from South or East Los Angeles and are wards of the court living in group homes, foster homes or with relatives. "What this day does is lift the veil so these children feel that they are part of the community and the community can embrace them."

A lot of figurative embracing seemed to be going on Sunday between speeches or performances by, among others, Gov. Gray Davis and his wife; actor Bruce Davison; and various local musical groups.

"I don't have any children of my own, so this is kind of like having kids," said Robert Draper, 47, of Malibu, who, like most of the adult mentors, met his young charge for the first time Sunday.

Madeleine Farfan, 21, of Northridge said the experience was good training for her future career. "I want to go into social work," the college student said, "so this was an open door. It makes life feel like it's worth living."

And Yesenia Rivera, 19, of North Hollywood said the experience just made her feel good. "I love children and enjoy being with them," she said. "I get joy knowing that I made a difference in their lives today."

Indeed, Rivera appeared to have made a difference in at least one young person's life Sunday. Eight-year-old Klarissa said she had been nervous before meeting her mentor earlier that day. "I thought there'd only be [performers] here and you'd have to pick them to go on the rides with you," she said.

"I thought there would be no one with me."

After meeting Rivera, however, the little girl relaxed. "When I met her," she said, "I knew I'd be just fine."

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