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Living Sequel : Actress Organizes Fund-Raiser for Girl She Portrayed on TV

February 05, 1989|ERIC BAILEY | Times Staff Writer

This is the tale of an actress who really took her role beyond the screen.

In a recent episode of the television program "Unsolved Mysteries," Tiffany Harris played a bit part in a true-life drama as a 16-year-old girl from Encinitas whose life came unraveled one night in April, 1987.

It's just the sort of suburban tragedy TV loves. Jennifer Pratt, an attractive high school sophomore, was riding on the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle when she was hit in the head by a wooden plank tossed by some youths in a pickup truck. The blow left the teen-ager with massive brain damage. Today, she has the mind of a second-grader.

Goal of $60,000

Enter the actress. During filming, Harris got a chance to meet the young victim she was playing, and was touched by the experience. When she learned that the family's insurance was running out, undermining Jennifer's chances of continuing in a $5,000-a-month rehabilitation program, Harris decided to help. In a big way.

Proving there's heart left in Hollywood, the 26-year-old actress has organized a walk-a-thon in the young woman's honor, setting the hefty goal of raising more than $60,000 to cover the cost of her rehabilitation during the coming year.

Scheduled for Feb. 18 at the Santa Monica Pier, the 6-mile event is open to all comers willing to raise some dollars to help the cause of Jennifer Pratt. Harris hopes to eventually enlist the aid of corporate stars and Hollywood bigwigs.

As a struggling actress at the dawn of her career, Harris hardly has time for such an undertaking, but she has fit the organizing chores in between interviewing with agents, auditioning for roles and typing manuscripts to make ends meet.

"I sometimes feel so one-dimensional," Harris said. "Seems all I do is send out 8-by-10s. After a while, you begin to feel like an 8-by-10. But this makes me feel really three-dimensional, like I'm really helping someone else."

Dubious at first about the prospects of a fund-raiser, Jennifer's parents have since embraced the idea.

"It's like a breath of fresh air," said Garry Strom, the girl's stepfather. "We've had so many people say, 'We need to have a fund-raiser,' but nobody did anything. Then Tiffany came in and just did it. No ifs, ands or buts. She just did it."

The financial help, no matter how large or small it turns out to be, will be welcome. Since the tragedy nearly two years ago, the family's savings have been drained.

To make matters worse, Strom has been unable to find a steady job since leaving his position as an assistant vice president with a financial services firm a year ago after a run-in with his bosses over the hours he put in during Jennifer's recuperation.

In the meantime, the family is trying to get a 60-day extension on their insurance to keep Jennifer in her special program at the Sharp Rehabilitation Center in San Diego.

"We're right down to rock bottom now," Diane Strom, Jennifer's mother, said. "There's no credit cards left, period."

Adding to the frustration is the stalled effort to bring her assailants to justice. Aided by a private investigator, her parents feel certain that they know the identities of the teen-agers involved in the board-throwing incident, but police say they lack sufficient evidence to bring charges.

The television program, which re-enacted the tragic night and the events that followed, produced a few leads after it aired Dec. 14, but none of the youths involved has stepped forward to identify the culprit.

Jennifer, meanwhile, seems wondrously oblivious to the tensions now gripping her family. She recently turned 18, but she still crosses back and forth between the mentality of a child and the vivacious young woman she once was.

Progress, however, is being made. Increasingly, Jennifer is able to recall short-term events, her mother said. And a recent operation that left a cast on one leg should eventually help her to walk more easily.

During a reccent visit by Harris to the family's Encinitas home, Jennifer was abuzz with excitement. The girl who dreamed of being a model flashed to the surface.

"Tiffany!" she said. "You look just like a big Hollywood star! Do you sometimes go around signing autographs?"

Harris laughed and smiled, bemused. "Uh, well, no, not me," the actress said bashfully.

"I love Tiff," Jennifer chimed later. "She's a new, great friend. I needed one bad."

It was a visit by Harris in October during filming for the TV show that forged the bond they share. As the two sat on a couch, Jennifer showed the actress the trinkets and cosmetics in her purse. Then an old friend of Jennifer's came by--a happy, attractive young woman in a mini-skirt.

"To see the contrast in them was what brought it out for me," Harris said. "Seeing what Jennifer could have been. . . . It's like the totality of what this little girl's life is today just hit me."

Harris packed up and returned home to Los Angeles after the three-day shoot in San Diego County, but a little bit of Jennifer returned with her.

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