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If Shoe Fits, This Group of Good Souls Gives It Away

December 25, 1985|MIKE EBERTS | Eberts lives in Hollywood

Three hours after the first families were admitted inside the 28th Street YMCA, the line continued to spill out to the curb. Restless children played on a bicycle rack.

Inside, the scene was near bedlam. Rosa Campbell, trying to down a quick snack of Cheetos and Orange Crush, stood surrounded by a human ring.

"Where do we sit down?" one weary father asked while carrying his daughter. As Campbell turned to answer, a toddler in his mother's arms reached out and filched some Cheetos. After the child's fourth dip into the bag, Campbell noticed.

It may have taken her so long to notice because Campbell characteristically looks down when meeting new people. "I'm a foot watcher," said Campbell, president of Aunts & Uncles, a private, nonprofit organization that provides new shoes to children whose parents can't afford to buy them.

The St. Louis-based organization distributes about 14,000 pairs of shoes a year. Many of those shoes are donated by manufacturers and retailers. Contributions from individuals and businesses allow Aunts & Uncles to purchase additional shoes.

After nearly 20 years of operation in St. Louis, Aunts & Uncles is trying to gain a foothold in Los Angeles. About 500 pairs of shoes were handed out at the YMCA last Saturday.

The shoes are not given away. There is a $5 registration fee per family, regardless of whether the family has one child or 10. Campbell said the fee, which is waived for those who cannot pay, helps defray the organization's costs.

But that is not the fee's only purpose. Campbell said giveaway programs extract a high price--not in money, but in the dignity stripped from the recipients and the dependency fostered. Many of the people served realize their dependency and resent it, she said. "A lot of people walk into the door hostile. That's what the system does to you.

"I tell them, 'You're going to have to help us help you.' "

Aunts & Uncles is not hypocritical on the subject of handouts and independence: the organization receives no government or United Way funds. Campbell said private donations and volunteerism gives Aunts & Uncles an extra dimension of warmth. "It's people to people," she said. "These shoes are a sign that someone cares."

The decision to take an independent course means Aunts & Uncles has not been critically hurt by the cuts in federal funding to many organizations that serve the poor.

But Aunts & Uncles has felt the effects, even though they have been indirect. "The demand on us is much stronger," said Campbell. "We are picking up a lot of slack."

Most needed are shoes for 5- to 8-year-olds. "The hardest thing is when a family comes in--five, six or seven children--and we can fit everybody but the littlest one, and he can't understand why everybody gets shoes but him," she said. "We get them the shoes eventually, but if they're really heartbroken, we give them the box."

Aunts & Uncles does not distribute shoes that do not fit. Campbell knows how traumatic it can be to have shoes that are ill-fitting or no shoes at all. She remembers receiving a new dress for the annual Easter parade in Memphis 40 years ago. Her older brother, Lawrence, went to the parade while she stayed home because she had no shoes. When he returned, she took his shoes and went to the parade. A few minutes later she returned home, crushed by the taunts of other children making fun of her wearing the too-large shoes, she recalled.

"It was one of the most traumatic incidents in my life," she said.

Lawrence Albert, her brother, was apparently moved by the incident as well. In February, 1966, he mortgaged his dry-cleaning business in St. Louis to provide start-up capital for what would become Aunts & Uncles.

Ten years later, Albert was forced to suspend Aunts & Uncles when both his business and health failed.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Campbell had a comfortable paycheck and a glamorous position as Hugh Hefner's personal secretary at the Playboy Mansion.

Then, in 1978, she left Los Angeles (where she had lived for 18 years) to resurrect her brother's broken dream.

"I thought I'd stay for six months," she said, but soon came to realize that "something was missing in my life. It started with a certain restlessness I couldn't explain."

From her years here and exposure to the wealthy, Campbell said she learned that fulfillment does not automatically come with wealth. "Some of them were the most miserable people you've ever seen."

Campbell said she worries about the future of Aunts & Uncles but is comforted that her daughter, Stephanie Wright, has taken over operation of the Los Angeles chapter.

Aunts & Uncles has become like the family business, said Wright, who grew up in Los Angeles and knew little about her uncle's crusade in St. Louis.

She has since learned firsthand that many children do not own a decent pair of shoes. "They come in with the shoe tops flopping," she said. "It is like they don't even have the soles anymore."

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