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Brightening the Holidays : Orangewood Counselers Go All Out to Put Smiles on Small, Sad Faces

December 25, 1987|RAY PEREZ | Los Angeles Times

Fun is the sole occupation of Sonja E. Detert, a woman with a throaty voice who could charm the ayatollah himself to place a friendly Christmas call to Ronald Reagan.

For 28 years, Detert has worked with abused and neglected children in Orange County. And for the last 14, she has been solely responsible for providing those children with the best possible Christmas.

During the holiday season, she spends most of the day collecting clothes and toys from donors--anything the 170 kids who live at Orangewood Children's Home, the county's facility for abused and neglected children, can use.

Afflicted with polio and a dislocated hip since shortly after birth, Detert, 51, buzzes around the grounds of the home in a donated electric cart. The children living at Orangewood are getting the best of everything this Christmas--tree-trimming experiences, lots of gifts and parties.

Her business card notifies the world that she is the coordinator of community programs for Orangewood, but providing and having fun is Detert's true vocation.

"Anything that has to do with fun is my responsibility," she proudly says. "I really think of my job as the neatest job in the whole county."

But Detert's job is a tough one. Although Orangewood is funded by the county, it must rely heavily on the generosity of the community.

"If you take everything that was donated away from here, there would be nothing left," she says. "Besides, there's nothing in the county budget for fun things, so I have to find them for the children."

Detert got a limousine service company to provide free, high-style transportation for the kids to attend a Christmas boat parade. The Sheraton Anaheim Hotel held a party for 88 of the children, and Disneyland sent over characters to entertain them one afternoon. Another 40 watched South Coast Repertory's presentation of "A Christmas Carol."

Always cheerful and always prodding with her hoarse, laughing voice, Detert usually gets what she wants from the donors through gentle arm-twisting.

One caller wanted to donate football equipment. Detert cringed, rolled her eyes and then pounced on her prey.

"We don't really need cleats. We don't play football that intensely here," she said before bellowing out a terrific laugh. "But we do need your help, and we are short on boys' shoes and corduroy pants."

The caller quickly abandoned the football idea and promised to donate the needed clothing.

Detert acknowledges that perhaps these abused and neglected children get too much materially during the Christmas season. William G. Steiner, the former director of Orangewood and now executive director of the Orangewood Foundation, remembers a child who once voiced his exasperation at having Santa Claus make appearances at eight Christmas parties he attended one holiday season.

"Maybe the kids get too much, but I can't help that," Detert said. "I just want to give them as much fun as possible during Christmas. That's all. Once a year, you can't do enough for these children. They've already suffered so much."

However, the sad realization for most of these kids, who have known too much fear and abuse in their brief lives, is that they will not be home for the holidays. And that pain is always evident in their eyes.

"Regardless of how nice you make the Christmas for the children, they will not be home," Detert said. "And home is home. They get very weepy and sad, because they are not home."

Indeed, it is a bittersweet period for these children. They laugh and they marvel at their good Christmas fortune made possible by Detert and the countless generous folks around the county.

But their eyes quickly saddened and their heads turned gently downward when they were asked about what it is like not to be home with Mom and Dad at Christmas. Esau Carrillo, 11, and his five siblings had a Mom and Dad last Christmas, but eight months ago the father murdered the mother and then killed himself. The children are now alone.

Esau, with beautiful black hair and a sweet face, joined his buddies one night in wrapping presents for his three sisters, who live in a foster home in Huntington Beach, and two brothers. He had chosen makeup sets for his sisters and model cars for his brothers.

Esau is a friendly child and a favorite among the residents of the Orangewood's Junior Boys Cottage. The dozen or so other boys at the cottage have a particularly warm regard for him, and he reciprocates.

But when reminded of his grief, Esau's voice cracks and he battles a tear.

"I don't know what it will be like on Christmas day. It will be nice to be with my brothers and sisters. Hopefully, it will be a nice Christmas," he says.

Hopefully, by next Christmas, the Carrillo children will have adoptive parents and will have put some emotional distance from their deep sorrow.

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