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PROFILE / VERA BROWN : Sweet Charity : The owner of posh spas has a mission: Use the profits to help the less fortunate.

August 27, 1992|KATHLEEN SHARP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's hardly surprising that clients at Vera Brown's newest beauty spa in Thousand Oaks would expect her to exude a certain aura of elegance.

After all, when the spa happens to be on the grounds of the very posh Sherwood Country Club--a rolling, modern-day Sherwood Forest owned by billionaire David Murdock and where full membership costs a paltry $150,000 to join and $6,000 a year--luxury comes with the territory.

What most clients don't expect, though, is for the owner of such a successful enterprise to be set on giving her riches away.

"My frustration is that there is so much to do to help traumatized women and children, and I can't do it all," Brown said.

"My dream is to someday recruit a lot of volunteers, (and) that's why all of this is so important," she said, gesturing around the club. "What comes out of Sherwood will go back to my charities."

If that sounds like the voice of another 12th-Century Sherwood Forest figure echoing forth into present day, don't worry. It's only Vera Brown, not Robin Hood, using the profits culled from her spas to give to the poor and needy throughout Southern California.

Charity directors won't give specific figures, citing confidentiality, but they say that the contributions of Brown and her husband, a retired real estate developer, have gone beyond generous.

"The Browns have contributed a significant amount of money over the years and are among our major contributors," said Linda Falcone, director of development for the Foundation for the Junior Blind, which serves blind children throughout Southern California, including Ventura County.

The couple recently helped raise $2 million to build an education center in Los Angeles, foundation representatives said. The center is slated to open later this year.

Now, though, Brown said she is looking for even more worthwhile charities to help--something that shouldn't be too difficult to find these days. "All the money from the Lake Sherwood spa will go to needy charities in Ventura County, as soon as I can find some," Brown said. "Do you know of any?"

Said Helen Maxwell, director of the MacLaren Children's Center in El Monte, where Brown volunteers: "She's a phenomenal lady. I wish I had her energy."

At an age when most businesswomen retire to a weekly game of golf, Brown, 72, works a full business day. Her evenings and weekends are filled with volunteer work that exhausts those around her. She's received numerous awards for her work, including the City of Hope's "Spirit of Life" award.

"She's in bed at 2 and up at 7," said her husband of 43 years, Gil Brown.

During the day, Brown manages a 33-employee company that includes Vera's Retreat in Tarzana, a day-spa that caters to a confidential list of clients whose names are known from Wall Street to Wilshire Boulevard.

She also operates Vera's Retreat in The Glen, a 2,700-square-foot spa in Bel-Air that treats working folks just like the movie stars who pop in regularly: Jane Seymour, Heather Locklear, Chris Everett, Ed McMahon and Robert Townsend.

Indeed, so many celebrities flock to Vera's spas that she's been called the Hollywood skin guru.

"I hate it when people call me that," she said, wrinkling her nose.

Brown said she'd much rather talk about her other "star" clients--the women and children at the half a dozen nonprofit agencies she actively supports.

There's the Foundation for the Junior Blind, to which Brown has volunteered since 1954. She also donates her own line of skin care products, which she labels especially for the foundation in Braille. She then teaches the children how to use the products properly, which is no easy feat.

"Blind people . . . often don't know how to dress or present themselves to the world," said Bob Ralls, the foundation's president. "What Vera does is teach them how to take care of themselves as part of being successful in the world. And she hasn't let up in the last 40 years."

At the MacLaren Children's Center, Brown attends to children who have suffered beatings, sexual abuse, neglect, drug abuse and violence. She gives them her products at no cost and, once a month, teaches them how to use them.

"She thinks she teaches them skin care, but it's really self-love and acceptance," Maxwell said.

Maxwell remembers one suicidal 14-year-old girl who had been repeatedly raped at home. By the time the girl arrived at MacLaren, she didn't want to leave the safety of her room. She had to be coaxed into attending Brown's class.

That day, the 5-foot-4 Brown talked about the importance of a child looking into the mirror every morning, giving his or her face a hug and saying, "I love you." She demonstrated this by placing the palms of her hands on her cheeks and squeezing them.

A boy scoffed at such silly advice. A group of sullen girls ignored her. But by the end of the day, several students were telling Brown what they wanted to be when they grew up.

After class, the suicidal girl hugged Brown and in a wisp of a voice promised to love herself every morning.

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