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Outrunning Adversity : Marathon: Homeless youth races for dignity with support from her mother. Today she tackles 26.2 miles through L.A.

March 07, 1993|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The telephone number on 14-year-old Jessica Wendrick's Los Angeles Marathon application is for her mother's beeper.

Her mother, Linda Wendrick, is at every race Jessica runs, cheering her daughter across the finish. Jessica, as her mother will tell you without prompting, is also a student at the Bravo Medical Magnet School in Boyle Heights. And if you ask the teen-ager what she wants to be when she grows up, she immediately answers: a pediatric surgeon.

It sounds like a typical mother-daughter relationship. But for much of the last year, the Wendrick family has been homeless.

For several months, Jessica, her three younger sisters and her mother lived in a beat-up station wagon, roaming San Fernando Valley streets in search of meals, clothes and a quiet place to park for the night. Other times they managed to stay with friends or in a seedy motel.

"If anybody asks where we live, my mom says to tell them: 'Any street, U.S.A.,' " said Jessica, whose numerous running medals were prominently displayed on a counter in the homeless shelter room where the family was temporarily housed on a recent day.

Jessica's dedication to running and her struggle to stay competitive at school are extraordinary given the circumstances of her life, according to those who know her.

But homelessness is so much a part of the urban landscape that the provisions made for her by her school, running coach and friends are no longer remarkable.

Today she will run the marathon through the streets of Los Angeles, another long-distance trial in a life full of obstacles.

"Let's go! Let's go!" Wendrick called out for the first of many times last Sunday. Jessica was running the annual Firecracker 10-kilometer race in Chinatown as a warm-up to the marathon.

But Wendrick was not urging her daughter on in the race--yet. She was urging the children to get dressed and out the door of their shelter apartment to catch the bus downtown.

"I can't find my watch!" Jessica said as she frantically searched through the mounds of blankets, clothing, cereal boxes and baby supplies in the one-room North Hollywood apartment. As Wendrick put jackets on the other girls--Jacqueline, 8, Janene, 7, and Jaime, 3--Jessica finally found the digital watch she had won several months ago at a raffle after a race.

Jessica remembers the races she has run by what goodies--especially food--are provided to the entrants. "Long Beach Marathon was the best," she said with a big smile. "We got ice cream, a Danish, a Snickers, a Popsicle and Cornnuts."

Her sisters and mother usually get a chance to share the bounty.

"The first time I had Jessica at a race she was there with her family, and I don't think the kids had had breakfast," said Rob Russell, the running coach at Bravo school. "At the end of the race there was what most of us would call a snack. But I think they considered it a meal.

"Actually, I didn't know about Jessica's situation until I saw that her mother was going around collecting aluminum cans."

After two bus rides, the Wendricks arrived at the Firecracker. Jessica, wearing a Bravo T-shirt and a pair of running shoes provided by the Students Run L.A. school program, blended right in with the racers at the starting line. The only thing setting her apart were her glasses--a clunky pair provided by MediCal and now missing a sidepiece after one of her sisters stepped on them.

"I'd just like to beat an hour," she said just before the gun went off and she was swept along with the crowd up North Broadway. Jessica's previous best time for a 10K race was 1:03:23.

Her mother, sitting in a parking lot while Jessica made her way through the hilly, grueling course, admitted that life for the children has been chaotic. Wendrick has long been on welfare and said she is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for two months.

Last year, while recovering from a hysterectomy, she struggled to pay mounting child care expenses. Soon she was behind in the rent and could not pay other bills.

"Once you start to slip, it's hard to recover," she said.

Last summer the family was evicted from an apartment in the Valley and began living in the car.

"That's when I got the beeper," Wendrick said. "I had to know if something happened to one of the kids in school."

At the Firecracker, Jessica was gregarious, seeking out runners she knew from other races. But at school she is reserved. She participates in class activities, but doesn't buddy up with other kids.

"She is such a little waif of a girl, so quiet," said teacher Kathlene O'Neill, who has Jessica in her ninth-grade life science class. "I have never heard her bring up her living situation as an excuse for why she didn't do an assignment or missed class."

Indeed, few teachers and administrators at Bravo knew about Jessica's homelessness when she started school there last fall.

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