A pretty, 40-ish woman in a bright pink fairy princess costume strides down the corridors of Childrens Hospital, unaware of the quizzical looks she's getting.
Jeramie Dreyfuss' mind is on her agenda: She has to visit the young adults with cystic fibrosis, the little girl who's getting a bone marrow transplant and the boy who had the recent tracheotomy--and still make it to the big party in rehab. If there's any time left, she'll stop by the neonatal intensive care unit.
Princess-for-a-day Dreyfuss, wife of actor Richard Dreyfuss, is here under the auspices of Mother's Touch, a volunteer group she established two years ago with friends Susie Field (wife of film producer Ted) and Deborah McElwaine (wife of International Creative Management co-chairman Guy).
The three founders, along with 25 to 30 volunteers, visit the hospital the third Thursday of each month, bearing toys, makeup, caps, cassette tapes and stuffed animals for patients and entertaining them with a clown, a ventriloquist and life-size cartoon characters like Bart Simpson.
After volunteers cover the accessible floors, the day always ends with a party in the rehabilitation ward with special food (sometimes donated by California Pizza Kitchen or Art's Deli in Studio City), a puppet show and other fun.
Since Mother's Touch started its work at Childrens Hospital, the operation has grown from the Dreyfuss-Field-McElwaine alliance to a bank of 120 volunteers and a yearly budget of $80,000, raised from private donations. Although it's only one of the hospital's 32 volunteer, auxiliary and support groups, Mother's Touch marks the first time the entertainment community has become so closely involved with the hospital.
It's midafternoon on a Thursday, and in the hospital's circular driveway three trolleys are stocked with gifts. "Find out what sex they are and how old, and then just give 'em some stuff," Dreyfuss instructs the new volunteers. She laughs, listening to herself. "I become the supervisor," she says.
Also here today are Tarlton Morton, wife of restaurateur Peter Morton, her sister-in-law Pam, McElwaine's friend Linda Matyas and a clown named Annabelle (Tammy Coburn).
They are assigned to trolleys and floors. They begin their trek through the hospital, some of the first-timers hesitant about approaching the children. Who should get what toys? Should they stay and talk to the kids? Should toys be left for the ones sleeping?
"I find this incredibly rewarding," says Dreyfuss, "because those kids teach you strength. How can you worry about your own life when you see these kids going through what they're going through, and doing it with a smile?"
Dreyfuss got her first glimpse of the hospital while doing work there with the Lupus Foundation. (Dreyfuss has the disease.) Taken with the facility and realizing that the hospital's profile wasn't as high as it could be, she enlisted the aid of Field and McElwaine.
They started small, with just the rehab party once a month, while they became familiar with the hospital and the staff, and patients got to know them. Soon the women's increased interest in seeing more children, and the children's demand for more of their attention, had them covering various wards and floors.
"Sometimes it's very difficult," says Field. "I still cry sometimes when I go in there. There was a baby who died, a preemie, and I wasn't able to go in that area for a couple of weeks. But when you know that you're helping, making their days a little brighter, it makes it all worthwhile. When you know how much has to be done, then you hold yourself together and go in."
Dreyfuss is heading for the wing that houses teens and young adults with cystic fibrosis. "You've got to meet my pals," she says excitedly. "These kids were harder to get to know. First of all, the first time I met them I was dressed in this pink costume, and they're way too hip for that. But now they're like my special kids."
Dreyfuss and the other volunteers crisscross the hospital, stopping at the bone-marrow transplant ward, where Lace (Melissa Pare), from television's "American Gladiators," signs autographs. Then they go to an intensive care unit, where they ask the head nurse which children are allowed visitors.
"I love doing this," says McElwaine as she strolls through intensive care, doling out toys and talking quietly with the children. "I think any time anyone is sick, 24 hours is such a long time. Some of these kids are here for months. We kind of provide a break. And also, in some of the rooms we visit, you can cut the tension with a knife. I think it helps the families to just have a breath of fresh air in a very tense moment."
According to Margie Wagner, director of the hospital's Child Life program (which addresses the psychological, social and developmental needs of patients), Mother's Touch fills a void that medicine can't.