Alisa Ann Ruch never got a chance to make a difference in this world. The 8-year-old Van Nuys girl died June 28, 1970, from burns she received in a back-yard barbecue accident.
But thanks to her mother, Diane Host, Alisa Ann's memory has made a difference to children throughout the state. A year after the child's death, Host started the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation to educate children about fire safety and first-aid procedures and to provide financial assistance to families of burn victims. Today, the foundation is the largest of its kind and is credited with teaching children to stop, drop and roll if their clothing catches fire.
"It was devastating losing Alisa Ann," Host said recently. "After she was gone, something pushed me to do this, to make this foundation a reality. It was like somewhere, somehow Alisa Ann was pushing me on."
Host is one of a few San Fernando Valley parents who have experienced a child's death and gone on to help others in their child's memory.
"Because of the paralyzing effects of grief, it is not common for grieving parents to create a living memorial for children who have died," said Maria Iacobo, a public information officer for Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles. "Those who do have managed to use the child's memory as a driving force."
Michael Carrier of Sun Valley and Warren and Mary Campbell of Northridge say they, too, were spurred on to create memorials in memory of children they loved and watched die. Carrier is the driving force behind the Alexis Macfarlane Memorial Tennis Tournament, which raises money to find a cure for leukemia, and the Campbells hold annual fund-raisers that benefit various charities.
Host never thought about burn treatment or education before Alisa Ann's accident.
"Now, I don't want her to have died for nothing," said Host, who is no longer married to Alisa Ann's father. "I want every child and adult to know what to do if they are involved in a burn accident."
In late May, 1970, the Ruch family got together for a barbecue at their Van Nuys home to welcome the summer. Sometime after noon, Alisa Ann's father doused the charcoal with lighter fluid and put the can several feet away on the family's picnic table.
The children--Ethan, 10; Alisa Ann, 8, and David, 5--gathered near the table, eager for the barbecuing to begin. Their father lit the coals--and in an instant, the flame puffed out toward the lighter fluid can, causing it to explode and spew flaming liquid at the children and their father.
David's clothes caught fire and Ethan, who had miraculously been untouched by the explosion, immediately turned to his brother and put out the flames--probably saving his life, doctors said.
But Alisa Ann, who had been closest to the can before it exploded, was covered in flames. In that moment of panic, rather than run to her father--whose hands and arms had been burned but who was only a few feet away--Alisa Ann turned and ran 20 yards toward the house where her mother had been preparing the food.
"I looked out and saw her running toward me all aflame," said Host, who was four months pregnant. "I grabbed a tablecloth and rolled her in it."
Host immediately drove her family to a hospital and from there David and Alisa Ann were transferred to the Sherman Oaks Burn Center. Despite David's severe burns, which covered 23% of his body, he was judged to have a good chance of recovering.
But Alisa Ann, the blond girl with big blue eyes and rosy cheeks, was seriously burned over her entire body and doctors said she had only a 1% chance of survival.
For the next four weeks, Alisa Ann was conscious and alert as a team of specialists led by Dr. A. Richard Grossman worked to save her life.
"We had parties and lesson time and lots of socializing in Alisa Ann's room during that time," Host said. "Through it all, she had such an incredible spirit, such a positive outlook about the whole thing."
But in the end there was nothing anyone could do. Alisa Ann died at the Sherman Oaks Burn Center. Four months later, on Nov. 28, 1970, Host gave birth to a girl and named her Frani Alisa Ruch.
"I was determined, despite her name, that I wouldn't force this little girl to take Alisa Ann's place," Host said. "And so I began dreaming about creating a foundation to keep her memory alive."
Host's dream became a reality in 1971 when her uncle, attorney Zola Siegal, and his wife, Muriel, offered to take care of the paperwork that would get the foundation started. Money to begin the foundation arrived in letters and cards sent to the family, and annual fund raising keeps it going.